Bad, Bad Words

June saw us wrapping up a successful seminar month. The final session, the one called Cash Rules! raised an interesting discussion. A discussion about words that no self-respecting CEO or E.D. should ever use. Here, let me explain…


The conversation, it was getting heated.
It was a quarrel. A brouhaha.
It was all of that. Because of one silly word.
The word rich.

It was two people talking about an acquaintance—a third person not even present—and arguing whether he was (or was not) rich.
One person, the one taking the affirmative, saying, “Yes he is rich! He has money! Lot’s of it!
The other, the denier, complaining, “Aw c’mon! How can he be rich? He has a normal job, no better than yours or mine.

I sat back and watched. Enjoying the show; adding nothing.
All the while wondering whether either one, at some point, would pause and reflect.
And lay down some ground rules.
The first rule, the essential one, being, Hang on! let’s stop for just a moment, and let’s define that word, “rich”.
But no one did, and the debate ragged on, until I lost interest.

They’re big words, weighty words, important ones. They’re used every day, by a lot of people.
Rich, money, success, wealthy
And yet not one of those words—not one—has a clear meaning.
What they share, though, is a subtlety of interpretation. They mean different things to different people.

Like the end of the rainbow—and its mythical pot of gold—those words are hard to pin down.
And like that pot of gold, we all dreamily envision their fulfillment—ah, one day I’ll be rich! Oh yeah, I’ll have money. I’ll be wealthy and successful!
And then most of us, all too sadly, decide that money and wealth and success, just like the end of the rainbow, are easier to talk about than to attain.

You know what’s funny about those words? Those words like money and wealth and rich? There’s a word for them. Yeah, I’m serious.
And that word is nominalization.
Nominalizations are abstractions. You can’t pick any of them up and put them in the trunk of your car. They’re intangibles. They describe something vague, something fuzzy. Something mythical, almost.
I was going to say they’re like a unicorn. But that would be wrong. Because, we all know what a unicorn looks like, and we all know it doesn’t exist.

But rich people, successful people? Oh they exist all right. And some of them might (or might not) be your sister, your neighbour, your friend.
And that’s all well and good. Debating the wealth of a common acquaintance. That’s all well and good.
And harmless too.
Nominalizations, in casual conversations, are pretty harmless, so long as no one starts flinging mud. Or throwing furniture around.

But let me tell you where I take exception. Let me explain where nominalizations don’t belong.

In your organization!

Business owners! Executive Directors! Please tell me. Do you ever say?
When we have money, we’ll hire another employee.
When we’re successful, we’ll move into bigger space.
We can’t compete against them, they’re richer than we are.

If you do use words like that, please consider, what do they mean?
What does it mean to say, When our organization has enough money?
What, exactly, is enough money?

What I’m getting at is, you cannot drive an organization with nominalizations.
Organizations need objectives, solid goals, hard targets. Actual numbers.
And your job (well, at least one of them) is to set those numerical targets, communicate them, make them real.

My message, in fact, is simple.
Don’t chase rainbows. You know, as we all do, that that pot of gold isn’t there.
Establish a revenue target, a cash-flow target, a bottom-line target.
And then,
Write those numbers down, make them visible, make them crystal clear.
And then,
Financially manage your organization with those targets front of mind.

As for nominalizations,
Well, just for fun, ask your neighbour whether she thinks your other neighbour is rich.

To learn more about nominalizations, check out my book here. If you’d like to learn more about the Cash Rules! workshop please click here.


  1. Being rich isn’t too difficult to define. Bill Gates defined it by saying that being rich is being able to go to a restaurant and order anything he wants without worrying about the price. We can extrapolate that and say that it’s being able to get everything we want and not worry about money. I think that’s true, but there’s more in it that meets the eye.
    “want” is not a constant. People who only want a little can be happy and rich much faster.

    André Brugiroux worked as translator in Canada in the 1950s saved a little and then traveled on $1/day (the equivalent of $5/day in nowadays dollars) for a few decades – he always had the opportunity to return to the safety of his parents’ home but that ‘s not what he wanted and instead preferred traveling in conditions close to the one of an homeless.
    He then made a living from the books/movies about his travel. He said that he didn’t save anything and now he ends up with more money than he needs. He is rich !!!

    And yet, others can easily earn $200,000 and being unable to meet all their wants. They are not rich.

    I think that you’ll recognize the following sentence from Stumbling on Happiness (page 4 of the pdf): “Economies thrive when individuals strive, but because individuals will only strive for their own happiness, it is essential that they mistakenly believe that producing and consuming are routes to personal well-being.”

    On a related topic, check out Adam Baker’s TEDx talk:

    Being able to limit our wants can make us rich.

  2. Thanks for your comments Olivier.
    If there’s one thing I think we can all agree on, it’s that no one agrees (at least not fully) on what it is that makes people happy. AS for me, I’m on side with Dan Gilbert and his findings. Thanks again!

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