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Naval Ravikant’s Expert Skill at Defining Concepts

I’ve been on a Naval Ravikant binge recently and am enjoying his material. If you are unfamiliar with his work, he’s best described as an entrepreneur, philosopher and thinker. He maintains an active blog and podcast and is prone to engage in “epic tweetstorms.” His favorite topics: happiness, decision-making, financial freedom, learning and more. I’m partial to his podcasts, but everything he produces is top quality.

If you aren’t familiar with his ideas, I recommend the following podcast episodes:

The point of this post however is to touch on a single aspect of Ravikant’s thinking: The man is a master of defining terms simply and effectively.[1]

This might seem like a trivial thing, but it isn’t. His ability to effectively describe an idea is a big reason why his arguments are so persuasive. He is able to explain complex ideas using plain language. Moreover, he knows that highly specific, concrete examples are powerful tools for reinforcing those ideas.

Let’s take an example from his massive 3-hour “How to Be Rich” podcast. Early in the podcast he is asked: “What’s the difference between wealth, money and status?” It’s a tricky question that could quickly devolve into a muddled response, but Ravikant offers this particularly answer:

Wealth is the thing you want. Wealth is assets that earn while you sleep; it’s the factory of robots cranking out things. Wealth is the computer program running at night that’s serving other customers. Wealth is money in the bank that is reinvested into other assets and businesses. A house can be a form of wealth, because you can rent it out; although that’s a less productive use of land than running a commercial enterprise.

My definition of wealth is oriented toward businesses and assets that can earn while you sleep.

The opening to his comment is instructive. He immediately zeroes in one one of the three terms—wealth—and elevates it as the most important idea in this conversation. Next, he defines the term—“assets that earn while you sleep”—and immediately rattles off a litany of concrete examples that reinforce and vividly illustrate this definition.[2] Only after presenting these concrete examples does Ravikant reiterate his concise definition: “assets that can earn while you sleep.”

Strong definitions, as demonstrated in the above example, are critical to the communication and effective dissemination of ideas. Remember: communication is a two-way street. Fail to bring the audience along on your intellectual journey and you will lose their interest and engagement.

Unfortunately, many of us fail to provide our audiences with this level of detail in our communications (I am as guilty as any when it comes to this). Far too often, the presenter assumes his or her audience already understands the concepts underlying their argument. The presenter will glide over concepts and terminology that are foundational to the presented thesis as if they are as already understood by the audience. This phenomenon is especially noticeable when jargon or technical terminology is being used.[3]

The presenter needs to put themselves in the shoes of their audience and assume the audience lacks the necessary conceptual framework. This problem is easily remedied by the type of rhetoric Ravikant employs in the example above.

I was listening to a podcast recently and the host and his guest mentioned the “Red Queen Effect” in passing,[4] neither individual bothered to define the term or provide sufficient context for me to figure out what they meant. The result was that I felt a bit ignorant and even stupid. Fortunately, I don’t like being left in the dark, so I paused the podcast and fired up Wikipedia to figure out what their “Red Queen” comment meant. Despite eventually getting clued-in, I was annoyed for the remainder of the program.

Contrast this experience with listening to Ravikant. The act of defining his terms thoughtfully, clearly and with sufficient detail is impactful on multiple levels:

  • Ravikant doesn’t make the audience feel stupid or ignorant.
  • He ensures that the audience is on the same page with respect to his specific understanding of the term or idea. There is no “insider/outsider” dynamic when the speaker fully shares his ideas with his audience.
  • This in turn bolsters Ravikant’s argument because it creates a stronger scaffolding for the ideas that follow.
  • He argument gains credence and power as he moves deep into his topic because he’s thoughtfully bringing the audience along step by step.
  • By the end of the program, the listener feels damn good because we understand him and aren’t scratching our heads. Ravikant, on the flip side, looks like a genius precisely because he’s been so effective in his communication. This is the very definition of a win-win.

If you listen to Ravikant’s “How to Get Rich” mega-podcast episode (or read the transcript), you’ll observe his using this technique throughout the program. In fact, he immediately follows the excerpt I quote above with more definitional clarity. In the followup comments below, you’ll see that Ravikant next discusses what wealth is with a clear definition of why you want wealth. He also introduces a set of negative definitions by describing what isn’t the purpose of wealth.

Here’s the excerpt:

You want wealth because it buys you freedom—so you don’t have to wear a tie like a collar around your neck; so you don’t have to wake up at 7:00 a.m. to rush to work and sit in commute traffic; so you don’t have to waste your life grinding productive hours away into a soulless job that doesn’t fulfill you.

The purpose of wealth is freedom; it’s nothing more than that. It’s not to buy fur coats, or to drive Ferraris, or to sail yachts, or to jet around the world in a Gulf Stream. That stuff gets really boring and stupid, really fast. It’s about being your own sovereign individual.

See what he did again? Short definition followed by multiple concrete examples followed by restatement of the short definition (and then again in the subsequent paragraph). This is an effective definitional formula.

Ravikant doesn’t always provide this much detail in the definition of his terms, but even when he doesn’t, he’ll still throw the audience a bone by (a) defining the term or (b) providing sufficient context such that one can easily suss out the meaning.

If the above seems obvious and simple, it’s because it is obvious and simple. But many podcasters and writers fail to employ this simple technique. I’m as negligent as any when it comes to this. However, I am highlighting this technique in the hopes that I might make better use of it in the future. Better definitions do lead to better arguments.

By the way, if you find yourself in conversation with someone using unfamiliar or ambiguous terminology, make a habit of asking them to pause and clarify or define their terms for you. Even if it’s terminology you are familiar with there’s always the possibility that each of you holds a different interpretation of the exact meaning of that word or idea. It’s beneficial to establish a baseline of mutual understanding when dealing with abstract ideas.

[1] Note that this behavior is something I’ve observed in his podcast and interviews. Ravikant is a prolific poster on twitter which, owing to the short-form format, may yield fewer examples of this behavior.

Others who are very good at this are Randall Munroe — especially see his “Thing Explainer”, a tour-de-force of plain-language explanations for complex ideas, the economist Tyler Cowen, and Scott Adams in his books How to Fail at Everything and Loserthink.

[2] Individually his selected examples are distinct from one another and represent different types of capital: robots are an example of physical capital, computer programs are digital capital, money is financial capital and real estate is another kind of capital. This approach opens our imagination to the possibilities and gives the listener some room to consider others that he hasn’t enumerated.

[3] There is a place for jargon, especially among professionals within a specific niche or discipline, but for more general communications—which represent the majority of most peoples’ interactions—jargon can be problematic.

[4] The Red Queen Effect or Hypothesis per Wikipedia “is an evolutionary hypothesis which proposes that organisms must constantly adapt, evolve, and proliferate in order to survive while pitted against ever-evolving opposing organisms in a constantly changing environment, as well as to gain reproductive advantage.” The idea gets its name from a scene from Lewis Carrol’s “Through the Looking Glass” in which the Red Queen tells Alice “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.”

The Red Queen is a metaphor. Businesses and technologists like to use this idea as well.

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