Software Upgrade: One Man's Quest to Expand His Capacity for Word Storage

by William Coker

Motives for improving

Last year, facing a professional transition in my mid-thirties and despite a successful corporate career to date, I found myself pondering the age-old question—“What do I want to be when I grow up?”

When my friend Sheri suggested that I have my aptitudes tested at the Johnson O'Connor Research Foundation, I learned three surprising facts: I am highly subjective (a preference for working as an individual rather than with and through others) with high ideaphoria (a rapid flow of ideas), and that my vocabulary was below average. I was very disappointed about my vocabulary score.

After some soul searching, I realized that I had not been much of a reader. I read the newspaper but I almost never read a novel. Most of my reading was work-related articles from the handful of professional journals to which I subscribed. It also dawned on me that I never bothered with a dictionary, nor did I have a good dictionary at home. I did not pay close attention to words, particularly new words.

I became motivated to expand my vocabulary because I observed that effective leaders get things done mostly through the art of conversation. I began paying more attention to how the leaders around me speak. I am impressed by the apt word spoken at the right time without hesitation and with confidence. I am also inspired by public speakers in business and the church who are fluent and comfortable in their speeches because of their strong vocabularies. I began to see the transforming power of a strong vocabulary and I decided to challenge myself and set a goal for expanding my vocabulary. I believe that vocabulary makes a difference and that it is never too late for me to improve. No matter what my career choice, I wanted to excel.

Goals and Techniques

My goal was to learn 2,000 words in a 12-month period. I made a commitment that on the one-year anniversary of my aptitude test, I would return to Johnson O'Connor to get retested on my vocabulary, in order to assess my progress. I also decided to put myself on a three-year vocabulary-building program with a specific goal of knowing 5,000 new or familiar words that I would not typically use as part of my everyday vocabulary. This was an ambitious goal and I knew that if I were to be successful, I needed a process. I adopted the steps that Johnson O'Connor recommends:

  1. Be aware of words
  2. Read
  3. Use a dictionary (circle the words and make a note of them)
  4. Study and review regularly

According to Johnson O'Connor, large vocabularies characterize top executives of major corporations. Words are the instruments which enable people to grasp the thoughts of others and with which they do much of their own thinking. Whereas aptitudes are innate, it is entirely possible to increase one's vocabulary by paying attention to words and consciously learning new words. Even though we already know thousands of words, we continue to learn more whether we work at it or not when we come across them often enough in our reading, television, or conversations. But Johnson O'Connor suggests that increasing the pace of our learning requires a consistent, dedicated approach. For example, if you learn one new word a day for the next three years, you will have over a thousand new words in your vocabulary. However, if you decide right now to learn ten new words a day, in one year you will have added over three thousand to what you already know, and probably have established a lifetime habit of learning and self improvement.

First steps

The first thing I needed to do was to buy a good dictionary. Secondly, I decided to step up my reading because I was on a quest for words. I started by reading the newspaper more regularly as well as the Economist magazine. I now find that I am more cognizant of words when people speak in conversation, on TV, or on the radio.

I've adopted a simple process that works well for me but requires some discipline. My objective is to write down and look up the definition of any word that fits into one of two categories. The first category covers words that I simply do not know. An example is the word didactic, which I encountered a few weeks ago. Didactic is a term used to describe something that is meant to instruct.

The second category is for words that are familiar or somewhat familiar but not really part of my vocabulary because I would be unable to define them accurately and as a result, I would typically not use those words as part of my everyday parlance. I've made a small investment in the legendary moleskin notebooks and I always have one handy to capture my new words. All entries are dated and numbered. I write the meaning of the word next to it after I've looked it up in the dictionary. I also mark the word in the dictionary by putting an asterisk next to it and underlining it. I make it a point to scan the open pages of the dictionary to review any previously marked words. I keep my notebooks handy around the house so that whenever I have any down time, I can scan and review the words to get familiar with them. Finally, I keep this process going by reading more and more and I always have my notebook, dictionary, and a pen by my side when I read.

Results and the future

After a year of following this process, I had filled up two notebooks and logged 1,450 words. It was time to go back to the Foundation to get re-tested for my vocabulary. Even though I was short of my goal of 2,000 words, I knew that I had been diligent in my process and I was already beginning to see an improvement in my confidence whenever I engaged in a conversation. My test results this time were staggering. I had moved up from the 30th percentile to the 75th percentile, which I'm told is quite a rare feat. Going forward, my aim is to develop my public speaking and writing skills. I have a goal of logging more than 5,000 words by the end of three years.

I am pleased that I was able to increase my vocabulary significantly by following the Johnson O'Connor Research Foundation's recommendations. In many ways, I feel like a new person, as though I have undergone a personal software upgrade!