Getting Beyond Amazing
A look at how superlatives are taking over our children’s language
Do we really redeem language from safe mediocrity when we allow superlatives to flow like water, rather than wine?
We have created the language equivalent of a European wine lake, devalued or even unvalued, only fit to be washed down the sink hole of hyperbole.
If just about everything is “awesome” then a real sense of awe becomes lost and elusive. Soon, expectations becomes so lowered that mediocrity becomes relabelled as excellence, and a protective social collusion grows around it. Our kid’s rush back from a friend’s house after a play date. The “play” bit was “good” but the DVD was “awesome” and the computer game was “amazing, with awesome special effects!”
“I’ve got your comic on the way home”. “Wow! Awesome!”
A few fireworks burst in the night sky, “Wow! Amazing! Cool!”
In some ways, it’s harmless enough. It’s just people express themselves, and surely it’s better that people put out that keep in? After all, what’s wrong with positively celebrating things?
Bigging up in the short term diminishes over time
It’s all over the place, in management and motivation speak, and especially in the digital realm. The goal is excellence, but not a sacred excellence, a mysterious excellence; instead it is an excellence that involves hitting profit targets or getting ten out of ten on customer feedback surveys. By diminishing excellence and plundering just about every superlative in the name of positive spin, we lose the realm of authentic idealism, our children’s dreams become over-materialised “goals”, and we create over-big targets that, when we hit them, are bulls-eyes the size of moons.
I’m disappointed that excellence has been so misused, largely by a kind of ignorant, desperate optimism. Life seems such a struggle these days for people that, a bit like a striving child, we say “that’s brilliant!” when they manage to stay half on their bike for three seconds. It’s so easy to fall into that ripping of language from its true meaning in the service of motivation and alleviating the pain of tough existence. “Excellent” then becomes a warm motivator, yet with diminishing returns. Soon we consciously and sub-consciously stop believing each other when we use superlatives to describe the “fairly good” or the “quite poor”. Not using superlatives becomes a kind of meanness, a betrayal of the motivation party that all the “cool” people are rocking to. But get this: The over-use of superlatives to big up and motivate individuals and teams ultimately demotivates them in the long run. Each “amazing” dilutes over time, its value and the trust in it diminishing over time until its value reaches almost zero.
Going for the Real Potential in Us
In search of excellence, true excellence eludes us, because it is a sublime state, too easily framed as elitist I admit – but still, a rare place, a place that can be gorgeous because it represents true potential in a process of realising itself. No, a video of a cat falling off a fridge and doing two back flips is NOT awesome. And a fairly okay karaoke rendition by our niece of an Beyonce song, is not “amazing”. By calling it these things, we diminish the original effort and striving. It becomes almost impossible NOT to, because we are social beings and everyone else is doing it. But we steal dreams and real potential from our kids by mislabelling Base Camp One as the Summit. many end up parked for two long with their flag planted in the foothills, stuck in a collusion of mediocrity and wretched contentment (Often for the rest of their lives.)
Further up and Further in!
Excellence is not always higher up; sometimes it is further in, or deeper, or more subtle, or more mysterious, a revealing story. Excellence tends to reveal rather than show as a clumsy beacon. Awesome requires real awe. If you lose touch with real awe, then you might soon stop believing that your real potential even exists. What do I mean by potential? Potential is more or less mysterious. We may be told we have the potential to be a (insert job or career or time running 100 meters, or the ability to play a musical instrument professionally) We may tell ourselves what we believe our potential in some field is. Or we may just hope that it is there – we may feel our way towards it – experimenting, taking risks, widening our experience, and looking for confirming feedback. Potential reveals itself to us over time – sometimes through efforts we consciously make, sometimes through what seems like luck and unplanned happenings. When we do find we can run 100 meters in under ten seconds we can be in a state of disbelief, genuine “amazement”. The revelation, literally, creates awe in us – a critical, even sublime moment in our lives, a high point in our story.
Tuning Out of Our Mystery
If we lose the ability to tune into that mysterious potential, we simply set a new bar in our lives, or decide the world of possibility is smaller than it really is, because we now habitually name mediocrity as “excellent”. The danger of calling everything amazing, is that we ceased to be amazed in our lives. The danger of labelling a warm, salt-soaked burger “awesome” is that we never really encounter even the possibility of awe in our lives. Our kids soon become comfortably numb.
When Superlatives Turn into Lies
Saying something is amazing is simply a lie if 1. It isn’t amazing to a common sense bunch of people and 2. if you don’t truly find it amazing. Even if the motive is to motivate, you’ll be drawing upon a well that will start to run dry very quickly. The Greatest Show on Earth ought to be just that. I’m a regular attendee and writer at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The hype and hyperbole there maxed out years ago and nobody really believes anybody. Press releases have run out of words and it is the grapevine that has more cred than the official media. And even the various grapevines have disappeared under their own stinking piles of bullshit years ago. Why does that matter? It matters because it affects performance. People believe their own hype and the “amazings” fed to them by their collusive communities. We no longer no what good really is and, as for great, we stopped believing in that years ago as well. Yet, at the world’s biggest arts festival, there is greatest. Occasionally. And it usually emanates from those who have learned to see through the hype and whose (at least private) conversations are grounded not in the compulsive superlative, but in the accurate real. Having interviewed hundreds of performers, the mostly genuinely excellent ones have either stay in the realm of, or rediscovered, the power of truthful naming.
Of course, the constant repetition and escalation of superlatives, in marketing terms, can be an effective form of self- and other- hypnosis. It can create compliant behaviour, grounded in the notion that, if you tell a lie often enough, it might just get believed as the truth. If you can also manipulate people to lower their expectations, they may even have a semi-authentic experience of mediocrity as “excellent”, having forgotten long ago (or never been permitted to encounter) what excellence really is. We all simply become hypnotised into what Pink Floyd called a state of being “comfortably numb”.
Comfortably Numb, Celebrated Mediocrity
I believe that social life is parked in mediocrity most of the time. It’s a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes, because the true-naming of excellence is seen as a kind of “spoiling tactic” and the namer will soon find themselves labelled as a “downer”, a “misery guts”, a “spoiler”. Mediocrity can be a beautiful thing – as we climb and stumble, we reveal our unique vulnerability and the value of learning by doing. But mediocrity has a hiding place, relabelled as “awesome” becomes a place where trying is too dangerous, and where potential is too mysterious to be trusted.
The Rareness of Excellence
Yet excellence is more beautiful when it is truly, and rarely achieved. And ironically, our striving is a kind of excellence, if it is authentic and named honestly. Excellence isn’t only and always the highest bar, but that which is celebrated as realised and emerging potential. It often surprises us. It’s better for not being “harnessed”. We should harness our creative will and energy in the service of opening space for our potential to unfold. Excellence may lie along that path. It will be relative in certain places at certain times. When we raise the bar, it is because we realise our potential is revealing further possibility and vision. When we call the imperfect “perfect” there’s both a truth and a lie in that; there’s a perfection in our human striving, a beauty in the climb, the journey, the struggle. We are perfect in that we are born imperfect – and that creates possibility. But there’s also a different perfect which is there as an ideal, something metaphysical. That perfection is not easily to be found in a burger, a new fizzy drink, nor a business goal and our over-needy misnaming of it as “excellent”, “amazing” or “awesome”, does not make it so, and it often does erode belief in our deeper intuited ideals. That authentic perfection is diverse, elusive, and all the better for not being plundered into the mundane.
Truthful use of language requires more effort. It requires courage. To be delighted with “a bit better”, to strive for “improvement”, and to celebrate “an impressive effort” all appear bland in the face of “amazing” and “awesome”. Yet when we use words in all their specific variety, when we get used to the precision of describing our reality, we quickly find that energy is realised. It’s the energy of REAL potential. it’s the motivation to be truthfully on the “road” to the best we can endeavour to be.
The gentle breeze can be as refreshing as the storm, and a storm is not a hurricane. Our language is exciting, almost infinite and nuanced. And this is where we can start to parent our kids through “awesome” and “amazing”.
What can we do?
So, what can we do as parents? We can start with ourselves, but we can also guide our children back onto a more creative, free and adventurous path. It’s a less certain path, more subtle, risky, and authentic. It will set them up for a life of “whatever” – but they’ll be more in command of themselves, more proactive, more conscious. If you want that, read on…
The Early Years
If your children are offered the TV as the child-minding technology, while you get on with your day, then they’ll soon pick up the habit of superlatives. Give them an IPad and, even the most gentle games, will stun their emerging senses in to the extremes – of colour, of flashing lights, or harsh music, of repetition, and plenty of rewarding “Well dones!” for simply scoring a few points. The media is a benevolently-styled grooming process to prepare kids for the simple world of smileys and “amazing”. Children’s TV is usually presented by adults talking “kid language”, exaggerating their speaking, and using a superlative every five or ten seconds. Since the birth of television, there’s been an underlying assumption that viewing figures will max out when children are stimulated into “waking up into the world” – garish colours, loud sounds, even shouting – repetition and simplistic music. Even “baby sleep” channels play music and show images that tend towards overbrightness and electronically generated sound. For older kids we are in the realm of cartoons where no single scene or camera angle stays on the screen for more than a couple of seconds. This is a kind of binary, on-off world, where constant and sudden “flip-over” change is a virtue, a sign of creativity. Constant creativity is closer often to chaos than mindful, conscious creation. We are often waking kids up into a kind of trance state that prepares them for being compliant consumers. When things are too easily “amazing” or “crap”, “awesome” and “rubbish”, we lose our ability to dialogue in the spaces in between, a world of messy quality, a realm of nuance. When you ask a child, how they are feeling and all they can say is “good” (often said in a short and clipped way), followed by a distracted expression, the effort required to elaborate on that “good” and find out what is really going on in the child, can tire both you and the child out.
“Had a good day at school?” “Yep!” “Great” (Pause) “So what did you do in class” “Oh, usual stuff.” “Brilliant!” (silence as Gaming device is booted up)
So, yes, I’m suggesting that too much screen time is not good for our kids. Even well chosen games and films will usually be designed around quickfire image changes, enhanced colours and presenting a world that is brighter, louder, and more “out there” than it really is. Nature starts to feel like paint that lacks loudness in comparison to the deep blues of every TV-offered sky, and the air brushed faces, and emotionally simplified designs of cartoon characters. The world of Shrek offers a tidier, less demanding realm than the sharp edges of twigs and dampness of real grass.
Children are more able to handle all of this digital distortion and reframing when they are older. Many writers in this field, such as Eugene Schwartz, suggest over ten is a better place to start introducing them to it. Yes, TEN! Before then, limit that screen time, place it carefully, and let the physical world be the main playground for the child’s emerging senses. Parents know this in their hearts. Pack a child with sugary foods at two or three and soon, they want everything sweet. An early training in sugar can dull the taste buds for life. Soon enough, an avocado or even an apple starts to taste “disgusting”.
Immerse your kids in the simplistic language of smileys, “kewl” and “On or off” young enough, and you’ll soon dampen their potential to be complex, creative, and lovers of the spaces in between yes or no. The place of subtlety.
What if it’s already happened? What is the teens are now junkies of about ten superlatives, and not much else? Is it too late?
We can’t block it. It’s the language of the emerging generation. It’s also often a form of bold, positive expression (though it can also be souped up indifference). They’ll be exposed to it at school, with friends, and on TV, whether you like it or not. It isn’t about blocking it. it’s about meeting it, redeeming at least part of it. It’s about making amazing truly amazing again.
Try this: Unpacking the superlative
The next time you child says a movie was “amazing”, accept it, show genuine interest and ask. “What was amazing about it? Which bits were most amazing?” Do it gently, don’t push it. But try to draw the child out. Seek description, as if you are sorry you missed it. Often this simply dialogue will re-awaken a more varied conversation. You might even get “Well, that ending wasn’t that amazing. I found it a bit cheesy”.
Don’t fall into interrogation. Just find opportunities to “unpack the superlative”. Be curious about the detail behind amazing. Ask for examples. Tease out evidence. Encourage a bit of gentle critique.
Try this: Walking the quality talk
Start with yourself. Whenever you are with your child, lead by example. Use superlatives only occasionally, accurately and authentically. When you are in a supermarket getting your change, don’t say “Great! Thanks”. When you get your coffee in a cafe, don’t say “Fantastic”. Find some gentler words, and you might just find they become more powerful over time, and the child will pick up on some of them. “Look the barista in the eyes and simply say “Thank you.”
When the pizza arrives on the table, you might genuinely say “That looks delicious”, or “Smell that! MMM!” instead of “Cheers. Fantastic!”
As you eat the pizza, get specific without getting to intense or over-analytical. “There’s just the right amount of tomato on this. Eight out of ten!”
So – ration your use of “amazing” and “awesome”, use more varied language in front of your kids, the describe things as they really are, without any need to “Play up” or “play down” the truth.
Try this: Show your children genuinely “amazing” things. Not everyone can see the Northern Lights or fly over the grand canyon. Not everyone will get into space, or break a world record. But one thing our media has stored and can show us are some of the world’s wonders. We may even have stories from our family and friends that are genuinely “amazing”. Grandad who escaped from a prisoner of war camp and survived in the desert for six months. Sally who built a house entirely on her own. These stories will be relative, will genuinely amaze more or less, but if we can expose our kids to the truly amazing and wonderful, they have a reference point, a yardstick for their own lives. Set the measure at the level of truly amazing and your kids might just start setting their own yardsticks for their experience.
Try this: Go ona one-hour or one day “Superlative Diet
Spend an hour or a day on a break from superlatives. Don’t worry if you don’t succeed, just be more mindful and aware.Resolve not to use superlatives in your conversations, at home, and out and about. When you find yourself saying “Great” or “Brilliant”, just pause and replace it with another word – either after saying it, or before, in your mind, if you’ve caught yourself in time.
It can be a bit discomforting, but also a bit energising, to find new words and to “catch yourself” falling into superlative mode. Over time there can be a feeling of freeing up and feeling more empowered in the way you express yourself. During the “diet time” you might also find that, in a certain situation that really IS “awesome”, the word will slip into your tongue, at your commend, and it will feel like pure gold, or bright clear sunlight, tripping off your lips, then diving valuably into the world.
Try this: Start loving language
There’s nothing wrong with the word’s “amazing”, “cool” or “awesome”. There’s a lot wrong with using and misusing them to describe just about every experience in your day. What we express also impresses itself upon us. Language partly shapes who we are – be it from our own lips or from the lips of others. Language helps to create our identity. Limited use of language limits us within that narrow range.
So, just start to play with language again. Listen out for words that you like the sound of, be more curious about the meaning of words,and add a few to your own vocabulary. If someone asks you “how are you?”, before you leap in with a habitual “fine”, pause a moment and ask yourself how you really are, then dive into your inner library and find the words and phrases that more specifically describe how we are: “Feeling a bit restless”or, “Feeling summery”. I would dare the baffled looks and risk a bit of playfulness with language. If you’ve started calling everything “lush”, you might just savour more words to describe the taste of things: “Delicious”, “Delicate and warming”, “gently spicy and creamy – I like it!”
When our language opens up,so does the vista of possibility in our life. Superlatives are a way of affirming people and the world around us. But they can also dilute diversity into sameness. So, spend a few chosen moments each day experimenting with the richness of language. Reading can help. Conversation on a particular subject or theme can help. Then, when we do say “awesome”, the word starts to re-assume its original power. We use it rarely but more authentically, and we notice people listen more, value what we say more. What an important and valuable example to set for your kids!
When we start to increase the variety and quality of our words, placing “amazing” and “awesome” more truthfully and consciously, we can begin to realise just how narrow our language had become. We can discover that language has turned into just a few lazily relied upon default words and phrases. Climbing out of that hole can require effort and may tire us. it can feel like spoiling our “positive party” Initially “good” can feel “bad” in the face of “brilliant”. Over time we re-establish a more healthful habit – the habit of speaking in a way that allows hidden potential to show itself. We start to realise that the real “awesome” doesn’t come so cheaply, but when it does come, it is really amazing!
About the author: Paul Levy is a trustee at the Brighton Steiner School in the UK and author of the forthcoming book, The Digital Inferno