The Value of Words

Numbers are concrete.

Unless they’re being manipulated by a slug, I don’t look at “2” and wonder if it is really “4.”

I know that the absolute value of 2—whether it has a negative sign in front of it or not—is still 2, because numbers are ultimately about distance. Both 2 and -2 take up two spaces on the number line, whether I’m moving forward or backward.

Imagine words being absolute numbers.

The “2” version of your words convey the exact same meaning, whether presented in the positive or negative. One absolute value, void of interpretations.

Below is an example from a recent e-mail, where the words and message exist on different planes.

What was written:

My client likes you book. He’s a big deal in the film industry and I want to give him a signed copy. Can you sign and overnight it to this address xxx xxx xxx?

What was likely meant:

I’m trying to kiss my client’s ass and I need your help.

How it could be translated:

I’m trying to kiss my client’s ass and I want you to bend over backwards to help, even though I’ve never met you, have had no contact with you, and will not offer to pay to send you the book or pay for shipping because you are an author and must have copies that your publisher sends you for free just sitting around your house, and because you’re a recognized author, you must have a ton of extra money and time to deal with my self-serving request.

With words, there’s a lot of wiggle room. They are not absolute. Baggage makes them so.

Every time a new message arrives, the lens through which we view it switches out, like an optometrist’s test kit.

If we’re on the writing end, we have to know that the intended interpretation could be missed.

What to do?

Let’s rework the e-mail above.

What should have been written:

I have a client who admires your work.

I’ve enjoyed working with him and want to do something special to thank him.

I know this is a lot to ask, but would you consider signing a book to him?

If yes, I’d make it as easy as possible for you. I’ll buy a copy of the book and send it to you with a FedEx return label, so all you have to do is call for a pick-up.

Thanks for considering the above,


What you would have meant:

I have a client I like—and I want to send him a thank you present that I know would make him happy. I know you don’t know me, but I’ll make it as easy as possible if you are able to help.

How it would have been translated:

I’m a nice guy. I have a nice client. I want to do something nice for that nice client. I need your help. If you help, I promise I’ll make it as easy as possible for you.

Get your words as close to their meaning.

Say what you mean and drop everything in between.


In the last few months, Steve has received a few e-mails from individuals asking him to review their books, which include links to where Steve can pre-order the books on Amazon.

No offer to send a free book.

No offer to pay for shipping.

Just a request that he spend his time and money on a complete stranger.

If you use extra words to say what you mean, make sure they are dripping in Kindness and Consideration.

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  1. Joel D Canfield on June 2, 2017 at 6:35 am

    Back when I did business coaching I talked about emotional bank accounts and how you can’t make a withdrawal until you’ve made enough deposits, with the caveat that it’s the bank, not us, who determines the currency and our balance.

    If a stranger knocked on my door and asked to borrow my guitar, I’d be tempted to kick them in the ankle. If my buddy Pegleg asked, I’d make the 90-minute drive to his house and deliver it myself.

    Perhaps it’s because I entered the second phase of my life feeling like I’d made far too many overdrafts that I’ve spent the last 15 years making deposits every chance I get, and thinking hard before making withdrawals.

  2. gwen abitz on June 2, 2017 at 6:47 am

    NEVER ceases to amaze me what people EXPECT when a door has been opened for FREE with Steve’s Writing Wednesday; Callie’s and Shawn’s Friday’s What It Takes. They just keep wanting MORE for free; no matter what format. No willingness to DO THE WORK and WHAT IT TAKES for themselves. Paraphrasing a John F. Kennedy quote” “NOT what can my country do for me and other countries but ALL ABOUT what can I do for my country, being the United States of America [for me].”

  3. Lynn on June 2, 2017 at 6:55 am

    Hi Steven,
    I’m so sorry that people have been taking your generosity for granted. I read your weekly epistles with a great sense of recognition, camaraderie and above all gratitude for the gift of your knowledge, enthusiasm, wisdom and your love of truth. You make this writer in far away Australia, feel part of a larger family.
    So thank you
    Very, very much

  4. Michael Beverly on June 2, 2017 at 7:13 am

    I have an amazing idea for a movie and I thought it would be generous of me to allow you to be an integral part of this brilliant project.

    Please remit $10,000,000.00 US Dollars.

    You can thank me later.

  5. Mary Doyle on June 2, 2017 at 7:21 am

    This is a great companion/follow-up piece to Steve’s recent “Clueless Asks” post. I was taken aback by some of the negative reactions to Steve’s post (thankfully offset by Steve’s followers who “get it”) – clearly from people who don’t know how much he (and you and Shawn) have so generously given and continue to give with no strings attached. I agree with Gwen’s thoughts about what amounts to entitlement – it has pulled a chair up to the table, demanding more now, without putting forth any effort to do the work. Keep fighting the good fight Callie. As always, thank you!

    • Nik on June 2, 2017 at 8:39 pm

      Thanks for mentioning that post, Mary. I googled it, then I followed another comment link to Steve’s 2014 AMA about how to tell people you don’t work for free:

      It’s a good read (or a good listen if you DL the podcast version) and it’s refreshingly honest.

      Regarding the free advice here, it’s also marketing. It’s a good way for Steve to connect with his readers, give them a reason to check back frequently, and remind them of upcoming books or appearances. Nowadays writing about writing has become an industry, and there are thousands of would-be teachers out there competing for follows, likes, pageviews, and most importantly, our attention.

      But the proof is in the pudding, and as per The War of Art, we have to be careful who we apprentice ourselves to. If my choice is getting writing advice from some random person or Steven Pressfield, I’m going with Steve every time. Because he’s Steven ****ing Pressfield!

  6. fjr on June 2, 2017 at 7:23 am

    I think a request for review and a link to buy the book smells of a mass mailing.

  7. Sandy Brown Jensen on June 2, 2017 at 7:49 am

    What price fame?
    Paparazzi suck.
    Crows mob eagles.
    Wasting a perfectly good blog post to the faithful will not change that eternal verity one iota. I feel like my time got wasted, too–one of them there vicious circles you hear so much about.

  8. Maria Furlano on June 2, 2017 at 8:11 am

    Great post! Loved this post and loved your “Clueless Ask” post. I thank you for your honesty that is always mixed with insightful suggestions. Most of all, I thank you for your consistency. Have a fantastic weekend.

  9. Mia Sherwood Landau on June 2, 2017 at 9:11 am

    Sadly, many online gurus tell people to make requests from thought leaders, and even hint that those leaders should somehow be grateful. Thanks for busting the misinformation today, Callie!

  10. Princia on June 2, 2017 at 9:26 am

    I’m afraid we are going towards a time when people truly mistakes being objective with being completely selfish. And rudness cames together with all of this.

    Sorry that you (and all the world) have to read these kind of emails. And I hope the good ones remain in mind. Best regards!

  11. Nik on June 2, 2017 at 7:48 pm

    “Every time a new message arrives, the lens through which we view it switches out, like an optometrist’s test kit.”

    That’s a beautifully crafted sentence, Callie.

  12. Joe on June 3, 2017 at 8:52 am

    I can attest.

    A couple years ago, I wanted to ask a favorite author to sign a copy of one of his books for my brother. I first sent an e-mail to his publicist, asking her politely and saying that I knew the author was busy and that if the answer was “sorry, no,” that was okay. I offered to send him the hard copy that I’d already purchased, along with a postage-paid return envelope.

    In my request to her, I also gave her some context of why. The author, my brother, and I all shared the title of US Marine. My brother was at the time a Marine colonel and an F-18 Hornet pilot. I told a story about my brother, so that the author would have some sense of the person for whom he was being asked to give his time in signing:

    “Here’s the kind of man my brother is. I asked him once, when he was a major: what’s the best part for you, flying an F-18? It was a question I’d never asked him before, and I half-expected a Top Gun, teeth-snapping, because-its-dangerous-Mav kind of response. Adrenaline, need for speed, where else can you go Mach 1.5 and not get pulled over?

    “But there was none of that. No bravado. No chest-thumping. He got quiet and his eyes cast skyward. He said simply,’When I’m up there doing what I do, I’m protecting some 19-year-old lance corporal with his boots in the sand.'”

    I wanted the author, a former Marine himself, to know this.

    After he signed the copy of his book and I gave it to my brother, I sent the author a thank you, along with a photo of me giving the book to my brother at Sunset Parade in front of the Iwo Jima Memorial at Arlington. I sent a thank you to his publicist for her help and her kindness.

    Since that time, I’ve been able to trade an occasional note with the author (Hey, I saw this thing I thought might interest you), and with his publicist, who might send a friendly “thanks for your comment on that thing I wrote.”

    So, what you say is true, Callie.

  13. EJ Apicello on June 3, 2017 at 7:11 pm

    I very much appreciate the frank tone you use in your writing! It is refreshing and I think we need more of that in our world. I admire your work and was just introduced to your book the War of Art – I just Amazon primed to tonight! Thank you for the delightful read!

  14. Peter Fritz on June 4, 2017 at 6:49 pm

    Steven, I feel I’m just beginning to develop this kind of wisdom and clarity.

    There’s so much baggage (and bullshit) embedded in the things people say. And we have so little time to wade through it extract their true intentions.

    Thank you as always, for your perspective these things. It feels like everything you write prepares me a little more for the obstacles and potential missteps laying just ahead. You’re like the wise uncle I never had.

    • Peter Fritz on June 4, 2017 at 6:51 pm

      One day I’ll learn how to type… Sorry about the errors.

  15. Jay Cadmus on June 5, 2017 at 9:27 am

    Again, “Thank you…all of you.”
    You have confirmed another nugget of knowledge.
    Each one of us stands within a sphere of influence.
    That “sphere” only reaches a short distance.
    Our small area of personal space extends, depending on intersections of commonality with others.
    Reaching into your sphere does not create that commonality.
    It is intrusion.
    Asking someone to perform in a certain manner needs to be consistent with who we are in common.
    Your perception of me is created – not just that which my ego demands of you.
    Again, thank you Callie.

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    I think I need a lot of information on this, thank you for sharing

  17. coca on January 15, 2020 at 11:21 pm

    I really like the kind of simple written article so people can understand it and people can understand what message the author wants to convey. Your style is very unique but it’s easy to understand what you want to say in this discussion.
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  18. on September 30, 2020 at 1:26 am

    Thank you for the great article. I learned a lot from your insight.

  19. bubble shooter on July 7, 2022 at 8:49 pm

    In my request to her, I also gave her some context of why. The author, my brother, and I all shared the title of US Marine. My brother was at the time a Marine colonel and an F-18 Hornet pilot. I told a story about my brother, so that the author would have some sense of the person for whom he was being asked to give his time in signing. This is an excellent article. This is, in my opinion, one of the best posts ever written. Your work is excellent and inspiring. Thank you very much.

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