Say Something Syndrome: The Power of Silence

08.03.2019 |

Episode #6 of the course Mental models: How to make better decisions by John Robin


Welcome to Day 6!

Today, we’re going to explore a mental model that’s at the heart of why we often frustrate our own progress.

This is called Say Something Syndrome, and as you’ll see shortly, we all suffer from it!


What Is Say Something Syndrome and Why Is It True?

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

This quote was written by Blaise Pascal in 1654. There’s plenty of reason to listen to Pascal: He’s the French mathematician whose diligent, focused work helped give us the calculator.

Einstein is also famous for having said:

“If A is success in life, then A = x + y + z. Work is x, play is y, and z is keeping your mouth shut.”

Both these quotes succinctly describe today’s mental model.

We have the tendency to talk about our ambitions, rather than actually committing to them. In fact, more often than not, when someone is talking about the dream outcome they eventually want to achieve, they are doing little to bring it forward.

What’s happening in this mental model?

The key involves the same principle behind Occam’s Razor: the second law of thermodynamics. In this case, apply that to talking about doing.

It’s easy to talk about doing something. It’s very hard to do the actual work to make it so. By the second law of thermodynamics, the easier path prevails.

Unless we refuse to let it be that way.

In order to do that, we must adopt the Say Something Syndrome mental model to understand that talking about doing is the same as taking a pin to a helium balloon. Avoid deflation at all costs!

Einstein is right that one of the key ingredients of success is keeping our mouths shut:

• So much energy needs to go into refining and assessing our results and improving our work.

• So much energy needs to go into the discipline to keep up the work and make progress.

• So much energy needs to go into the work itself.

The Say Something Syndrome mental model is a true testament to why the most impactful workers are often quiet. They come up for air when they are ready to share results or get a consultation, but not to talk about their process and what they want to do. The only time they brag is afterward at award ceremonies—but often, not even then. Usually, they are too busy thanking everyone who supported them while they focused hard on their results.


Applying Say Something Syndrome

We are all guilty of Say Something Syndrome to some extent. Humans are social creatures, after all. Sharing our aspirations and achievements is in our blood and helps us feel more connected to other people.

If you are working on an important project or if you have an aspiration, like wanting to write a book, pay attention to how you talk to people about it and how you approach your work. Are you mostly telling coworkers and friends about the project, but find that week after week, you’re making little progress?

The first step is to stop talking about it. (This includes talking about it on social media too.) You can now imagine, using this mental model, that by keeping quiet, you are channeling all that wasted mental energy into the work itself.

In fact, imagine your progress as that helium balloon. As you keep your mouth shut and focus on your work, the balloon inflates more and more and lifts you up and up. Each time you talk about it, though, imagine the pin striking it. Down you go and all the faster the more times you talk and take a pin to it!

Recognizing Say Something Syndrome doesn’t just help you learn how to make progress: It helps you become humbler and more grounded in what you’re trying to do. And people will respect you more for it because they see someone committed to their work, not someone ranting on about it.



A good way to summarize Say Something Syndrome is:

“Focus on results, hide the process.”

Make this your motto. Focused, deliberate work requires lots of energy. The Say Something Syndrome mental model helps us understand that by talking about it, we drastically decrease the value of the work we get done.


Step 1: Write down the number-one result you want to achieve.

Step 2: Stop talking to people about how you’re going to achieve it. Simply start working to achieve it.

Step 3: Apply Bayesian Updating, assessing how you’re making progress every week.

Tomorrow, we’ll add another mental model to our arsenal: Inversion.


Recommended book

Poor Charlie’s Almanack: The Wit and Wisdom of Charles T. Munger by Charles T. Munger


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