Derek Sivers

from the book “”:

Projecting meaning

2011-06-23

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

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

A language is words that five mouths speak?

When you say “thanks”, you speak words that give a body an inch of space?

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

The stories are so vivid. I try to imagine the historical or cultural meaning behind each one.

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

David Byrne, the main songwriter of Talking Heads, later said that most of their lyrics were just random. He would write little phrases on pieces of paper, throw them into a bowl, and shuffle them. 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 found out that many of them are just phonetic! Those components were not chosen for their meaning; they were chosen just for 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. Making stories helps me memorize them.

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 to make stories.

Even if presented with proof that an event is 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 who put the meaning into it. You can just as easily take all the meaning out of it.