Jargon Alert

If there's one thing that's guaranteed to make me smirk, it's business jargon that tries to sound smart. A list of my favorite examples, with translations:

  1. Unrealized synergies: there are still people we can fire to save money
  2. Non-recurring expense: we messed up, but it's just this once, so don't worry about it, bro
  3. Opportunistic: we don't have a strategy, so let's use this word instead
  4. Inflection points: if I borrow a term from calculus, maybe you will believe my fanciful projections
  5. Levers: pronounced LEE-vers - also known as steps I can take to solve a problem

I much prefer practical business tips from my MBA friends like "Bring doughnuts" or "Find a new job before you quit your old one." Anyway, you can imagine the look on my face when a friend sent me an email that mentioned "emergent strategy." Without knowing anything about this term except that it sounded fake, I turned to Google for illumination. My smirk, it turns out, was premature.

Emergent Strategy

From what I gather, emergent strategy just means you figure it out as you go. The opposite would be deliberate strategy, which means you follow a set plan. Deliberate strategy is like the queen telling her soldiers where to attack. Emergent strategy is like soldiers scouting the battlefield and figuring out for themselves where to attack. (Yes, I acknowledge that my concept of warfare is 200 years out of date.) In keeping with this post's business theme, I offer you a chart of colorful geometric shapes. Look at all those mischievous red arrows!

Now, as I am learning, geometric shapes inform but rarely move. Can I remember any diagram from any presentation ever? No, actually, I can't. That's why our stories need images. So here's one to remember - emergent strategy is like what army ants do. One wandering ant finds something delicious, like a beetle, and then signals the others to join in, and then these new ants send more signals, and very quickly the beetle becomes a nice afternoon snack. The queen does not dictate strategy to the common ants. The common ants discover it for themselves.

Remember: Emergent Strategy = Ants

Deliberate Mindset v. Emergent Mindset

When you write, you can have either a "deliberate mindset" or an "emergent mindset." That's right, no blog post critiquing business jargon would be complete without the invention of new jargon. Though this jargon, I would argue, is descriptive and, therefore, useful to our discussion about how to approach the application essay. That's right. I have drunk the jargon Kool-Aid, and it is delicious purple.

What do these mindsets look like when it comes to writing the application essay? The student with the deliberate mindset is the one who says, "I'm going to write about X" and then does just that. She defines her topic and conclusion in advance and does not deviate from her plan. In contrast, the student with the emergent mindset is the one who says, "I'm going to write about X" and, as she starts to do so, begins to explore Y, Z, and the whole rest of the alphabet.

In my experience, the students with emergent mindsets tend to write more insightful essays because they understand writing is a process of discovery. They don't get mad when they realize they can only salvage one paragraph from their first draft. They don't get mad when their original theme yields to a deeper one. They don't get mad when they realize on draft #6 that they just need to scrap the whole thing and start over. Instead, they are excited about - or at least open to - discovering their best story.

2 Ways to Apply the Emergent Mindset

Awareness of the emergent mindset has two implications for us as essay writers:

  1. Don't over-plan. If you're the type who likes everything planned out from the start, you need to let that go. The deliberate mindset will prevent you from discovering new, better ideas because you will be too focused on your old, worse ideas. The writing process is a road with curves, potholes, and dead ends, so you have to accept some uncertainty. You want to take the freeway to get there fast, but it's closed for repairs, so you have to take a detour.
  2. Do lots of freewriting. Freewriting is one of many great tips Phil has shared with me about writing. When you first sit down to write about your topic, you don't really know what angle will work best. The most efficient way to figure that out is to write a long, casual draft - to freewrite. 1200 words for your 650-word Common App essay? Great! The more you write, the greater the chance we will discover something that tells your story. Each sentence is an ant, and each essay an army. Watch your ants and see which direction they're marching. Their destination is your essay's theme. That's how you start writing the emergent essay.

Good luck writing!


Jon Perkins holds a B.A. in English from Stanford University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. He helps students with their college, law school, and medical school applications.