Part Two: Connotation or Denotation? (Beware Simple Stories)

Note: This is part two of three. Read Part One: Connotation or Denotation? (It’s All Semantics to Me) and Part Three: Connotation or Denotation (Everything Encourages Dissociation).

In 2013, Ryan Babineaux’s book Fail Fast, Fail Often urged startups to avoid the trap of spending all of their money and months of time on a product before testing it in the marketplace. The phrase itself, “fail fast, fail often” became more and more popular as a method of summarizing the larger idea.

Yet it took less than two years for articles to begin popping up warning us not to fail fast, but to succeed slowly. Even Facebook changed their famous “Move fast and break things” motto to the (less catchy) “Move fast with stable infrastructure.”

Did it suddenly become a good idea for startups to spend significant time and money on a concept before testing it? Of course not. So what changed?

The Connotations of Simple Stories

Gabe Weatherhead explain the issue fairly succinctly in his article, “Beware Simple Stories“:

“I’m skeptical of big problems with small answers. As Burnham says, “Beware simple stories.” A summary of thousands of hours of work should leave a spark, not smoldering embers.” -Gabe Weatherhead

Gabe’s takeaway is that we should avoid the “simple stories.” Unfortunately, that’s simply unrealistic. It’s necessary to summarize big ideas; how else can we further the conversation beyond re-explaining a big idea itself each time it comes up in conversation? What’s more important is that we recognize that a short quote or simple story is nothing more than the tip of the iceberg. When we hear a short phrase like “fail fast, fail often,” we have to look below the surface, and remember it is merely shorthand.

Don’t Be So Literal

In Part 1 of this series, I looked at the connotations of certain terms that were once nonsense. Now let’s look at connotation and denotation in a broader sense. When someone says “go jump in the lake” the denotation is to move with velocity into a body of water. But the connotation is “you must be kidding!” (or, sometimes, “go away”).

A phrase with a non-literal meaning is called figurative. A word with a non-exact meaning has a denotation. Simple stories fall somewhere in between. A simple story doesn’t mean something different. It just means more. It has a denotation beyond what is said in the four short words “Fail Fast, Fail Often.”


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