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Finding Courage In Words
August | 2012


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Courageous Leadership

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Courageous Leadership

Finding Courage In Words

Courage: (noun) Bravery, pluck, valor, fearfulness, backbone, bravery, determination, fortitude, endurance, fearlessness, mettle, tenacity, temerity, intrepidity, nerve, daring, audacity, boldness, grit, true grit, heroism, gallantry, élan. Informal: guts, spunk, moxie, cajones.

Peter Mark Roget, the author of the Roget Thesaurus, confronted tragedy early and often in his life. As an infant, he was separated from his parents as they searched for a cure for his father's tuberculosis. His father died from the disease when Peter was four. His mother, perhaps as a result of her husband's illness and death, or her own mental health issues demonstrated paranoid thinking, accusing her household staff of plotting against her. As an adult Roget had to cope with his wife's death from cancer and his sister and daughter's mental illness. He also was witness to his uncle's suicide who wound up dying in Roget's arms.

Roget was not immune to the effects of all this tragedy. He retreated early into the world of words, keeping lists of associated relationships — synonyms. Many people of the 19th century faced extreme hardships, but few notable others used their coping mechanisms to achieve such amazing success, helping to shape the direction of literature forever. His primary coping mechanism, known today as obsessive-compulsive disorder, caused him to lead a precise, organized life.

When he was sixteen Roget pursued a medical education, graduating in 1798. Medicine was in its formative years of becoming a science and Roget helped to promote a more scientific approach to the healing arts by tying medicine into the already organized systems found in the natural world.

His obsession with words extended to numbers and in 1814 he invented a slide rule to calculate the roots and powers of numbers. His work predated more contemporary slide rules used in schools and industry prior to the age of calculators and computers. (Ask your grandparents or watch the movie Apollo 13).

One of Roget's interesting studies dealt with what happened when he was, by coincidence, viewing the moving wheels of a horse drawn carriage through the veritcal slats of the blinds in his home . He noted that the wheels seemed to curve and he turned this observation and subsequent research into an article entitled the "Explanation of an Optical Deception in the Appearance of the Spokes of a Wheel When Seen through Vertical Apertures". Following his article Roget devised a shutter and aperture device to further study to phenomenon. This invention was considered to be an early prototype of a motion picture camera and he is credited in Hollywood history as an early founder of the industry.

But it was not until Roget retired from medicine in 1840 that his propensity for list and organizational structure led to his most enduring contribution. His Thesaurus (noun: wordfinder, wordbook, synonym dictionary), published in 1851 was not the first Thesaurus ever developed but, given Roget's scientific underpinnings, it was the first to use an organizing schema that made great practical sense. He developed his system using the classifications of natural history as his guiding principle. Words were divided into categories in a similar way in which animals and plants are divided into families. For Roget's Thesaurus, there are six primary classes with each class being composed of multiple divisions followed by sections that help the reader derive the precise synonym to express their precise thought.

Twenty-eight editions of Roget's Thesaurus were published during his lifetime, and for a time in the mid to late 20th century his text was on the bookshelf of every college student in the world. Today's software programs make finding synonyms and antonyms easy to access, but they are built on Roget's work. One of my favorite thesaurus websites is the Visualthesaurus.com.

Peter Mark Roget began his list keeping as a young boy and building on his obsession with organization and structure, fueled by his obsessive-compulsive coping mechanism, he created a literary classic that for over 150 years, gave authors a touchstone for success. For me, Roget is an extraordinary role model for a courageous career. His life demonstrates that in our later years, bringing together knowledge and experience from our life efforts may hold the promise of making a unique contribution in the world. And from a strengths perspective, Roget took something considered a disability, and used it to become his central asset, which led to great success.

When facing our personal flaws, it may be difficult to see how these can possibly be an asset. I think one of my greatest flaws is my persistence. I can sometimes hang onto an idea or belief well beyond the time that the counter- proof has been demonstrated. But on the other hand my persistence is responsible for many of the successes I’ve experienced. Consider how your shortcomings are really assets in disguise.

 

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TED Talks

I agree with gamer Jane McGonigal that building resilience can add years to your life (10 in fact) and her game SuperBetter provides a pathway to getting stronger in the face of adversity. Her TED Talk describes her journey from illness to health and how her four steps of resilience can add 7 ½ minutes of life for you each day.

 

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