Derek Sivers

from the book “”:

Projecting meaning

2011-06-23

Chinese characters look complicated, but they’re mostly made up of smaller simpler characters.

I love learning these because every character is like a tiny poem.

language = words 讠 + five 五 + mouth 口

So maybe a language is words that five mouths speak? Brilliant!

thanks = words 讠 + body 身 + inch 寸

So when you say thanks, you speak words that give a body an inch of space? Could that be it?

name = evening 夕 + mouth 口

So your real name is what’s spoken by a mouth in the evening? That’s kind of romantic.

They’re so vivid. I try to imagine the historical or cultural meaning behind each one.


Talking Heads were a great band from 1975 to 1988. Their lyrics were really evocative and mysterious — specific but vague — and made you wonder what they were really about.

Here’s an example:

Watch out — you might get what you’re after
Cool babies — strange but not a stranger
I’m an ordinary guy
Burning down the house

No visible means of support and you have not seen nuthin’ yet
Everything’s stuck together
I don’t know what you expect staring into the TV set
Fighting fire with fire

All wet — hey you might need a raincoat
Shakedown — dreams walking in broad daylight
Three hundred sixty five degrees
Burning down the house

David Byrne, the main songwriter of Talking Heads, later said that most of their lyrics were just random. He would write evocative phrases onto little pieces of paper, then throw them into a bowl, and shuffle them up. Then he’d randomly pull some out of the bowl, and put them into the song.

He did this because he liked how the listener creates meaning that wasn’t intended. Hearing one phrase next to another makes you assume they’re connected in a meaningful way. But nope. It was just random. You made that meaning yourself.


I got a Chinese dictionary to find out the meaning behind the words I was learning. I looked up many of the characters I knew, and found that many of them are just phonetic. Those composite character bits were not chosen for their meaning, just their sound!

So I’ve just been putting the meanings into them, myself. They actually had no meaning. But even knowing that, I choose to keep doing it. It’s poetic. It’s beautiful.

But how many other things in life really have no meaning?

She was born April 12. He was born September 12. What does it mean?

One day you ride your bike instead of taking the bus. That day your usual bus gets into a big accident. What does it mean?

A black cat crosses your path as you walk under a ladder on Friday the 13th. What does it mean?

Nothing at all. Nothing has inherent meaning. It is what it is and that’s it. We just choose to project meaning onto things. It feels good.

Even if presented with proof that it’s totally random or neutral, we decide it has meaning anyway. It makes life more poetic and beautiful.

And what if you’ve projected some bad meaning onto something, and it’s getting you down? Know that none of it is true. You’re the one that put the meaning into it. You can just as easily take all the meaning out of it.

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