The Profile: Spotify's biggest dealmaker & the corporate kidnappers

Language shapes your thoughts, your perspective, and your worldview.

The year before my family moved to the United States, my dad was helping me learn basic English. I was 7 years old at the time. We had the following exchange:

Me: “So Americans speak English, but they think in Bulgarian, right?” 
Him: “Uh...what do you mean?”
Me: “Like they think in Bulgarian, but then they translate it to English when they speak?” 
Him: “No...they just think and speak in English.” 

This insight blew my mind. At the time, English was an exotic language that no one I knew spoke. So it was incomprehensible to my 7-year-old brain that other people could think in a language foreign to me.

In the beginning, I thought in Bulgarian, translated the words in my head, and spoke English out loud. I was eventually fully immersed — I began thinking in English, speaking in English, and dreaming in English.

I grew up toggling back and forth between the two languages. When I think and speak in Bulgarian, I notice that I’m straightforward, logical, and thoughtful when selecting my words. In English, I’m extroverted, friendlier, and more emotional in my decision-making. (It probably has something to do with the fact that Americans often begin sentences with “I feel…” when they really mean to say, “I think...” The language itself emphasizes emotion over reason.)

I wanted to do some real research and answer the question: Can speaking a different language change our thought patterns, and in turn, our perceptions of who we are?

There’s a little bit of nuance, but the short answer is yes. Research shows that the language we speak can influence our thinking, giving us wildly different perspectives of the world. As the Roman Emperor Charlemagne once said: “To have another language is to possess a second soul.” 

Research suggests that our perception of the culture associated with a given language can impact our behavior. In a 2006 study, Mexican-Americans were asked to take a personality test in both English and Spanish. The study found that subjects scored higher in extraversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness when they took the English version of the test. The authors speculate that it’s because of the premium individualistic societies, like the U.S, place on assertiveness, achievement, and superficial friendliness.

In an essay, a senior editor at The New Republic explained why he stopped speaking only Hebrew to his three-year-old daughter. “For example, I am funny in English. Or at least I have my moments,” he writes. “Not so in Hebrew. My Hebrew self turns out to be much colder, more earnest, and, let’s face it, less articulate.”

For me, speaking two languages has forced me to spend a lot of time in my head, thinking, translating, re-arranging, and speaking. It’s also helped me as a writer because I’m used to connecting disparate ideas while understanding there’s always more than one way to think.

Sometimes I’ll try an idea, it won’t fit, and I’ll discard it. Other times, I’ll think of a Bulgarian word for a concept I want to convey but can’t exactly find its English equivalent. Sometimes I’ll start writing backwards — from the end to the beginning. I rarely think sequentially. 

I haven’t been able to find the right words to explain this phenomenon until I read Ted Chiang’s sci-fi short story, Story of Your Lifewhich was adapted for the 2016 film “Arrival.” (Shout out to Eric Eliasson, co-founder of podcast How I Got Here, for sending the story my way.) 

Here’s the basic premise: After a race of aliens, known as heptapods, initiate contact with humanity, the military hires linguist Louise Banks to discover their language and communicate with them. She says:

“More interesting was the fact that [the language] Heptapod B was changing the way I thought. For me, thinking typically meant speaking in an ‘internal voice’ as we say in the trade, my thoughts were phonologically coded. My internal voice normally spoke in English, but that wasn’t a requirement. The summer after my senior year in high school, I attended a total immersion program for learning Russian; by the end of the Summer, I was thinking and even dreaming in Russian. But it was always spoken Russian. Different language, same mode: a voice speaking silently aloud.

“The idea of thinking in a linguistic yet non-phonological mode always intrigued me. I had a friend born of deaf parents; he grew up using American Sign Language, and he told me that he often thought in ASL instead of English. I used to wonder what it was like to have one’s thoughts be manually coded, to reason using an inner pair of hands instead of an inner voice. With Heptapod B, I was experiencing something just as foreign: my thoughts were becoming graphically coded. There were trance-like moments during the day when my thoughts weren’t expressed with my internal voice; instead, I saw semagrams (symbols associated with a concept) with my mind’s eye, sprouting like frost on a windowpane.

“As I grew more fluent, semagraphic designs would appear fully-formed, articulating even complex ideas all at once … I found myself in a meditative state, contemplating the way in which premises and conclusions were interchangeable. There was no direction inherent in the way propositions were connected, no ‘train of thought’ moving along a particular route; all the components in an act of reasoning were equally powerful, all having identical precedence.”

Language shapes your thoughts, your perspective, and your worldview. Since language is the tool we use to mentally categorize emotions and communicate experiences, it’s the primary method through which humans organize and express thought. Being multilingual can open your world to alternative perspectives, allowing you to more easily understand that your own perception of reality isn’t absolute.

The reason my 7-year-old self was so shocked at my dad’s answer is because I realized that not all humans think the same way. It broke me out of my own self-centered view of the world. Now, at 28, I’m equally shocked when I see the toxic divisiveness brewing in our society because people are retreating to their own homogenous thought bubbles. 

As Louise Banks says in Story of Your Life, “The only way to learn an unknown language is to interact with a native speaker, and by that I mean asking questions, holding a conversation, that sort of thing.”

In other words, a curiosity for fellow humans is the antidote for divisiveness and fear. If you communicate often with people who don’t look like you, speak the same language, or believe the same things, you might find yourself breaking out of the egotistical thought patterns so prevalent today. 

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THE PROFILE DOSSIER: On Wednesday, premium members received The Profile Dossier, a comprehensive deep-dive on a prominent individual. It featured Ariel Investments co-CEO Mellody Hobson, a self-described “investor, learner, teacher, happy warrior.” Become a premium member and read it here.

PROFILES.

— The imprisoned bank executive seeking a moral exoneration [**HIGHLY RECOMMEND**]
— The queen of the Dollywood empire
Spotify’s biggest dealmaker
The billionaire spending $200M to save journalism
— The company selling the secret to success
— The corporate kidnappers
— The king of videoconferencing
— The In-N-Out burger billionaire

PEOPLE TO KNOW.

The imprisoned bank executive seeking a moral exoneration: The first line of this profile reads: “Ross McLellan was hungover the morning he was arrested for securities fraud.” Today, Ross McLellan, a former bank executive, is less than two weeks into an 18-month sentence in federal prison after having been found guilty of conspiracy, securities fraud, and wire fraud. McLellan’s story is much richer — and more complicated — than the world knows. (Institutional Investor)

“The odds are stacked against you, and fighting the government is not a fair fight.”

The queen of the Dollywood empire: Dolly Parton is music royalty. But she is also at the helm of a multimillion-dollar business empire. The Dollywood Company co-owns Splash Country water park, the DreamMore Resort & Spa, and Dollywood’s Smoky Mountain Cabins, as well as eight dinner theaters and restaurants in Tennessee, Missouri, and South Carolina. During COVID, the country icon has had to make some hard choices, while also expanding her slate of music, screen and branding projects — and even planning for a world without her. (Billboard)

“I just try to be myself. I try to let everybody else be themselves.”

Spotify’s biggest dealmaker: Joe Rogan. Michelle Obama. Kim Kardashian. All three have recently signed podcast deals with Spotify. Getting those high-profile figures to the table was Dawn Ostroff, a talented executive who’s made her career tackling the next big thing in media. Her job as chief content officer requires her to make Spotify less reliant on music while turning its podcast arm into a big moneymaker. Here’s how Ostroff keeps landing top talent. (WSJ; if you can’t access this story, reply to this email). 

“My natural inclination is to follow the younger generation.” 

The billionaire spending $200M to save journalism: Craig Newmark is the billionaire founder of Craigslist. Often accused of destroying journalism, he’s now attempting to save it. How? By plowing close to $200 million into non-profits centered around journalism, cybersecurity, and election integrity. He also gave $20 million in 2018 to fund the creation of a nonprofit news organization called The Markup, which imploded before it even launched. This article doesn’t dig deep enough for my liking, but it gives you an idea of what Newmark wants the world to look like. (Forbes)

“I have a lot of cash that I’ll still be giving away as my twilight years progress.” 

COMPANIES TO WATCH.

The company selling the secret to success: Online education platform MasterClass refers to its target customers as CATS: “curious, aspiring 30-somethings.” CATS are old enough not to be planning to return to school, but young enough that they need help advancing in their career. They’re anxious about their future, their present, and their position relative to that of their peers. Here’s why MasterClass seems to slot in so perfectly with our current reality. (The Atlantic)

“And we’re not just offering classes or education. We’re also offering escape.”

The corporate kidnappers: Most child abductions in the United States happens within families. In 2019, the State Department reported nearly 500 new abduction cases in which parents took their own children overseas. Over the last decade, a dozen “child recovery” agencies for-hire have popped up that allow parents to perform “snatchbacks.” These international child abductions are often risky, dangerous, and psychologically scarring for the kids involved. (The New York Times)

“It’s an unregulated industry, and we have seen things go very wrong.” 

The king of videoconferencing: Video-conferencing company Zoom is the pandemic’s success story. As people were forced to conduct business, go to school, and have meetings from their homes, Zoom became a staple. In April, Zoom peaked at over 300 million daily meeting participants – up from ten million in December 2019. Has quarantine given us a glimpse of the future of work or will our screen time come to a screeching halt once offices begin to re-open? (WIRED)

“I miss being able to look at the whole person, so I’m having to sort of delve a little bit deeper.” 

FROM THE VAULT.

The In-N-Out burger billionaire: As the sole owner of burger empire In-N-Out, Lynsi Snyder has a net worth of $3 billion. Snyder’s past lies in stark contrast to the company’s long-standing stability — she never graduated from college, battled through drug use, and went through three divorces. Taking over the franchise in 2010 gave her a sense of purpose. “When you persevere, you end up developing more strength,” she said. (Forbes; 2018) 

“It’s not about the money for us. Unless God sends a lightning bolt down and changes my heart miraculously, I would not ever sell.”


This installment of The Profile is free for everyone. If you would like to get full access to all of the recommendations, including today’s audio and video sections, sign up below.


AUDIO TO HEAR.

Tom Wainwright on the business of drugs: Tom Wainwright is the author of Narconomics, a book that gives an inside look into the drug trade and its 250 million customers. In this podcast, Wainwright explains how drug cartels operate as companies, doing everything from creating brand value to providing excellent customer service to running PR campaigns. What a fascinating world I knew nothing about. (Link available to premium members.)

Sia on repairing her attachment injuries: In this conversation, you get to hear an interesting side of singer-songwriter Sia. She is a student of attachment theory, which explains how the parent-child relationship influences development. There are four types of attachment — secure, anxious, avoidant, or fearful. “I’ve spent my whole entire life being extremely afraid — especially in interpersonal relationships,” she says. Here’s how she’s repaired what she calls her “attachment injuries.” (Link available to premium members.)

Abby Wambach on owning your mistakes: Soccer star Abby Wambach says the allure of professional sports can be dangerous for the ego. “It’s very easy to get sucked into this life of selfishness where every single thing revolves around your bullshit,” she says. She herself fell victim to that mindset, and when she retired from professional soccer, she suffered an identity crisis and began abusing alcohol and prescription drugs. It all came crashing down when she was arrested for a DUI. “As shameful and embarrassing as it was,” she says, it was the event that changed her entire life. (Link available to premium members.)

VIDEOS TO SEE.

Michael Rubin on the need for criminal justice reform: Michael Rubin, the executive chairman of Fanatics & co-owner of the Philadelphia 76ers, formed a close friendship with rapper Meek Mill. Meek was on probation at the time, and Rubin accompanied him to a hearing that changed his entire perspective on our criminal justice system. It took six months and $6 million to get Meek out of prison for a crime the rapper did not commit. Here’s what the duo is doing now to push for criminal justice reform. (Link available to premium members.)

Lera Boroditsky on how language affects the brain: Cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky explains the role that language plays in shaping our brains. People who speak different languages, she says, will pay attention to different things, depending on what their language usually requires them to do. For instance, if you show the same accident to English speakers and Spanish speakers, they’ll remember things differently. English speakers will remember who did it, because English requires you to say, "He did it; he broke the vase." Whereas Spanish speakers might be less likely to remember who did it if it's an accident, but they're more likely to remember that it was an accident. This is fascinating. (Link available to premium members.)

Peter Thiel on the intellectual and psychological blind spots of business:Billionaire entrepreneur and venture capitalist Peter Thiel explains what it takes to build a valuable company. He goes through the history of innovation, breaks down the lies people tell, and discusses the psychology of competition. “We always think of losers as people who can’t compete, and I want us to really re-think and re-evaluate this,” he says. (Link available to premium members.)


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