Real Learning Always Starts With Unlearning

Our capacity for learning is a part of being a human being. From birth, we are on a fast track of learning – movement, speech, understanding, and so forth. Unfortunately, many people equate “learning” with “schooling,” and when you’re done with school, you’re done with learning.

We are uniquely endowed with the capacity for learning, creating, and growing intellectually – and it doesn’t have an expiration date tied to an event, like graduation.

The practice of lifelong learning has never been more important to leaders than it is today. The necessity of expanding your knowledge through lifelong learning is critical to your success.

Take reading, for example. Many of the most successful people in today’s organizations read an average of 2-3 hours per day. No longer limited to books, reading is a lifelong learning activity that can be done online anywhere at anytime.

Learning is the minimum requirement for success as a leader. Because information and knowledge on everything is increasing every day, your knowledge must also increase to keep up.

Learning how to learn is more important than ever. Dedicate yourself to trying and learning new ideas, tasks, and skills. You don’t need to be aware of everything all the time but learning new skills faster and better – that in itself is a tough skill to master.

THE QUICK SUMMARY –Unlearn by Barry O’Reilly

The transformative system that shows leaders how to rethink their strategies, retool their capabilities, and revitalize their businesses for stronger, longer-lasting success.

There’s a learning curve to running any successful business. But once you begin to rely on past achievements or get stuck in outdated thinking and practices that no longer work, you need to take a step back―and unlearn. This innovative and actionable framework from executive coach Barry O’Reilly shows you how to break the cycle of behaviors that were effective in the past but are no longer relevant in the current business climate, and now limit or may even stand in the way of your success.

With this simple but powerful three-step system, you’ll discover how to:

  1. Unlearn the behaviors and mindsets that prevent you and your businesses from moving forward.
  2. Relearn new skills, strategies, and innovations that are transforming the world every day.
  3. Break through old habits and thinking by opening up to new ideas and perspectives to achieve extraordinary results.

Packed with relatable anecdotes and real-world examples, this unique resource walks you through every step of the unlearning process. You’ll discover new ways of thinking and leading in every industry. You’ll identify what you need to unlearn, what to stop, what to keep, and what to change. By intentionally and routinely applying the system of unlearning, you’ll be able to adapt your mindset, adopt new behaviors, acquire new skills, and explore new options that will totally transform your performance and the business you lead. This book will help you let go of the past, and encourage your teams and organization to do the same. When you think big but start small, choose courage over comfort, and become curious to tackle uncertainty, you can achieve new levels of success you never dreamed possible.

Good leaders know they need to continuously learn. But great leaders know when to unlearn the past to succeed in the future. This book shows you the way.


As futurist Alvin Toffler once wrote, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.”

Welcome to the 21st century. Living in our time requires different skills, one of the most important of which is unlearning activities, skills and formerly productive (or wise) activities such that new learning can take place.

One problem is that they’ve been focused on the wrong thing. The problem isn’t learning: it’s unlearning. In every aspect of business, we are operating with mental models that have grown outdated or obsolete, from strategy to marketing to organization to leadership. To embrace the new logic of value creation, we have to unlearn the old one.

Highly effective leaders are constantly searching for inspiration and for new ideas. But before any real breakthroughs can happen, we need to step away from old models, mindsets, and behaviors that are limiting our potential and current performance.

The system of unlearning is based on a three-step approach to individual and collective growth that I have dubbed the Cycle of Unlearning.

Adopting the Cycle of Unlearning doesn’t rely on being smart, or lucky, or desperate, or all of the above. It relies only on you – your courage and commitment to use it intentionally in your work and your life to achieve extraordinary results.

Step One: Unlearn

There are a variety of reasons why individuals get struck doing the same things over and over again; the main one is the erroneous belief that doing what brought you success today will bring you success tomorrow. Unfortunately, the systems, models, and methods that work today can actually limit your ability to change – and succeed – tomorrow.

Do you have the courage to recognize that what you are doing is not working, be willing to accept it, let go, and try something different?

Unlearning does not lead with words; it leads with actions. You must first embrace your purpose by clarifying your why and your what.

This first step in the Cycle of Unlearning requires courage, self-awareness, and humility to accept that your own beliefs, mindsets, or behaviors are limit your potential and current performance and that you must consciously move away from them.

Step Two: Relearn

As you unlearn your current limiting but ingrained methods, behaviors, and thinking, you can take in new data, information, and perspectives. And by considering all this new input, you naturally challenge your existing mental models of the world. By exploring difficult tasks, you will discover a tremendous amount about yourself.

There are three challenges to relearning effectively, and we create many of these challenges ourselves:

  1. You must be willing to adapt and be open to information that goes against your inherent beliefs.
  2. You may need to learn how to learn again.
  3. You must create an environment for relearning to happen outside your comfort zone.

Step Three: Breakthrough

Once you learn how to relearn and open yourself up to new information flows, networks, and systems from every possible source, you are poised to develop the kind of breakthrough thinking that has the potential to vault you into the lead.

As we break free of our existing mental models and methods, we learn to let go of the past to achieve extraordinary results. We realize that the world is constantly evolving, innovating, and progressing, so too must we. Our breakthroughs provide an opportunity to reflect on the lessons we have learned from relearning and provide a springboard for tacking bigger and ore audacious challenges.

This process can be as simple as asking yourself what went well, not so well, and what you would do differently if you were to try and unlearn the same challenge again.

Barry O’Reilly, Unlearn


Unlearning does not mean you will be forgetting old knowledge and ways; instead, it’s all about creating a new mental model or paradigm. New learning does not eliminate the old; it adds new skills and knowledge to what’s already in place.

Unlearning is an ongoing and continuous habit that must become a deliberate practice.

Author Barry O’Reilly has developed a series of “Unlearning Prompts” throughout his book. Using the following as examples, develop similar prompts that you can instill and practice on a regular basis:

  • When was the last time you truly unlearned how you ____________ (fill in the blank)?
  • What prompted it?
  • Did you recognize it, seek to uncover it, or be informed of it?
  • How can you make unlearning in this area more intentional?
  • What is the first small step you can take to get started?

Excerpt taken from SUMS Remix 113-2, released February 2019.


Part of a weekly series on 27gen, entitled Wednesday Weekly Reader

Regular daily reading of books is an important part of my life. It even extends to my vocation, where as Vision Room Curator for Auxano I am responsible for publishing SUMS Remix, a biweekly book “excerpt” for church leaders. Each Wednesday on 27gen I will be taking a look back at previous issues of SUMS Remix and publishing an excerpt.

>>Purchase SUMS Remix here<<

>> Purchase prior issues of SUMS Remix here<<



Do You Feel Like You’ve Been Run Over by Change?

Note: During the current “stay-at-home” mandates and other restrictions in place across the country, I am diving back into 11 years of posts, articles, and reviews across my different websites to bring back timely information for today.


In the hyperactive world we live in today, you’re either going forward or going backwards – but you’re never standing still.

Based on that premise, a lot of organizations, churches included, are going backwards. 

Historically, organizational leaders didn’t have to worry about fundamental paradigm shifts. They could safely assume that their basic business model, their way of doing things, would last forever. Over the last few decades, that thought has not only gone by the wayside, it’s been blown to the side of the road by in increased speed of, well, life.

In the case of the church, the paradigm was loyal pew-warmers who showed up each week, sat passively through the same unvarying service, dropped five dollars into the offering plate as it passed, and politely shook the pastor’s hand as they headed off for Sunday lunch.

Repeat next week.

But as we have found out over the last few decades weeks, organizational models aren’t eternal. Increasingly, we have witnessed profound paradigm shifts in the world of business, where rigid adherence to one particular model causes the organization to atrophy when its model no longer works – or at least, works well.

What’s true for the world of physics works in the world of organizations as well – over time, entropy increases. As Gary Hamel writes in What Matters Now:

Visionary leaders pass the baton to steadfast administrators who milk the legacy business but fail to reinvent it. The bureaucrats extrapolate but they don’t rejuvenate. As the years pass, the mainspring of foresight and passion slowly unwinds. The organization gets better but it doesn’t get different, and little by little it surrenders its relevance.

Recognize the Church anywhere in that statement? Better yet, do you recognize your church in that statement?

As Christianity has become institutionalized it has become encrusted with elaborate hierarchies, top-heavy bureaucracies, highly specialized roles, and reflexive routines.

Your church won’t regain its relevance until leaders chip off those calcified layers and rediscover its sense of mission.


Inspired by Gary Hamel’s What Matters Now as part of my research in preparation for a presentation at WFX Atlanta 09/19/12

What Should Christians Do About Cities?

Note: During the current “stay-at-home” mandates and other restrictions in place across the country, I am diving back into 11 years of posts, articles, and reviews across my different websites to bring back timely information for today.

Christians should seek to live in the city, not to use the city to build great churches, but to use the church’s resources to seek a great, flourishing city.  –Tim Keller

In Center Church, Tim Keller offers challenging insights and provocative questions based on over twenty years of ministry in New York City. Center Church outlines a theological vision for ministry – applying classic doctrines to our time and place – organized around three core commitments:

  1. Gospel-centered: The gospel of grace in Jesus Christ changes everything, from our hearts to our community to the world. It completely reshapes the content, tone and strategy of all that we do.
  2. City-centered: Cities increasingly influence our global culture and affect the way we do ministry. With a positive approach toward our culture, we learn to affirm that cities are wonderful, strategic and underserved places for gospel ministry.
  3. Movement-centered: Instead of building our own tribe, we seek the prosperity and peace of our community as we are led by the Holy Spirit.


In the section on “City Vision,” Keller answers the question raised in the title of this post with the following thoughts:

  • Christians should develop appreciative attitudes toward the city – In obedience to God, Job went to the city of Nineveh, but he didn’t love it. In the same way, Christians may come to the city out of a sense of duty to God while being filled with great disdain for the density and diversity of the city. But for ministry in cities to be effective, it is critical that Christians appreciate cities. They should love city life and find it energizing.
  • Christians should become a dynamic counterculture where they live – It will not be enough for Christians to simply live as individuals in the city. They must live as a particular kind of community. Christians are called to be an alternate city within every earthy city, an alternate human culture within every human culture – to show how sex, money, and power can be used in nondestructive ways; to show how classes and races that cannot get along outside of Christ can get along in him; and to show how it is possible to cultivate by using the tools of art, education, government, and business to bring hope to people rather than despair or cynicism.
  • Christians should be a community radially committed to the good of their city as a whole – It is not enough for Christians to form a culture that merely “counters” the values of the city. We must also commit, with all the resource of our faith and life to serve sacrificially the good of the whole city, and especially the poor. Christians in cities must become a counterculture for the common good. They must be radically committed to its benefit. They must minister to the city out of their distinctive Christian beliefs and identity.

If Christians seek power and influence, they will arouse fear and hostility. If instead they pursue love and seek to serve, they will be granted a great deal of influence by their neighbors, a free gift given to trusted and trustworthy people.

Reflections and excerpts from Tim Keller’s book Center Church.

To read other posts about Center Church, go here and here.

7 Features of a Church for the City

Note: During the current “stay-at-home” mandate and other restrictions in place across the country, I am diving back into 11 years of posts, articles, and reviews across my different websites to bring back timely information for today.

The challenge is to establish churches and other ministries that effectively engage the realities of the cities of the world. – Tim Keller

As Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in NYC notes in his book Center Church, “the majority of evangelical Protestants who presently control the United States mission apparatus are typically white and non-urban in background. They neither understand nor in most cases enjoy urban life. Furthermore, many of the prevailing ministry methods are forged outside of urban areas and then simply imported, with little thought given to the unnecessary barriers this practice erects between urban dwellers and the gospel.

Keller believes that churches that minister in ways that are indigenous and honoring to a city – whatever its size – exhibit these seven vital features:

Respect for Urban Sensibility – Christian leaders and ministers must genuinely belong to the culture so they begin to intuitively understand it. Center-city culture in particular is filled with well-informed, verbal, creative, and assertive people who do not respond well to authoritative pronouncements. They appreciate thoughtful presentations that are well argued and provide opportunities for feedback.

Unusual Sensitivity to Cultural Differences – Effective leaders in urban ministry are acutely aware of the different people groups within their area. Because cities are dense and diverse, they are always culturally complex. The ever-present challenge is to work to make urban ministry as broadly appealing as possible and as inclusive of different cultures as possible.

Commitment to Neighborhood and Justice – Urban neighborhoods are highly complex. Often, alongside the well-off residents in gentrified neighborhoods with their expensive apartments, private schools, and community associations, there is often a “shadow neighborhood” filled with many who live in poverty, attend struggling schools, and reside in government housing. Urban ministers learn how to exegete their neighborhoods to grasp their sociological complexity.

Integration of Faith and Work – Traditional evangelical churches tend to emphasize personal piety and rarely help believers understand how to maintain and apply their Christian beliefs and practice to the worlds of the arts, business, scholarship, and government. Urban Christians need a broader vision of how Christianity engages and influences culture. Cities are culture-forming incubators, and believers in such places have a significant need for guidance on how Christian faith should express itself in public life.

Bias for Complex Evangelism – Not only must an urban church be committed to evangelism; it must be committed to the complexity of urban evangelism. There is no “one-size-fits-all” method or message that can be used with all urban residents. Urban evangelism requires immersion in the various cultures’ greatest hopes, fears, views and objections to Christianity. It requires a creative host of different means and venues, and it takes great courage.

Preaching that Both Attracts and Challenges Urban People – Perhaps the greatest challenge for preachers in urban contexts is the fact that many secular and non-believing people ma be in the audience.  The challenge is for the urban preacher to preach in a way that edifies believers and engages and evangelizes non-believers at the same time.

Commitment to Artistry and Creativity – Professional artists live disproportionately in major urban areas, and so the art are held in high regard in the city, while in non-urban areas little direct attention is given to them. Urban churches must be aware of this, and should have high standards for artistic skill in their worship and ministries. They must also think of the artists no simply as persons with skills to use, but connect to them as worshippers and hearers, communicating that they are valued for both their work and their presence in the community.

By his grace, Jesus lost the city-that-was, so we could become the citizens of the city-to-come, making us salt and light in the city-that-is. – Tim Keller


Reflections and excerpts from Tim Keller’s book Center Church.


To read another post about Center Church, go here.





Next: What should Christians do about cities?

The Opportunity of Ministry in Cities

Note: During the current “stay-at-home” and other restrictions in place across the country, I am diving back into 11 years of posts, articles, and reviews across my different websites to review, update, and bring back timely information for today.

If the church in the West remains, for the most part, in the suburbs of Middle America and neglects the great cities, it risks losing an entire generation of American society’s leaders.

The growth in size and influence of cities today presents the greatest possible challenge for the church. Never before has it been so important to learn how to do effective ministry in cities, and yet, by and large, evangelical Christianity in the US is still non-urban.

Along with these challenges comes a range of unique opportunities. Tim Keller, founder and senior pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, sees four important groups of people who must be reached to fulfill the mission of the church – and each of them can best be reached in the cities. Here’s a brief summary of his thoughts:

The Younger Generation – the prospects for advancement, the climate of constant innovation and change, the coming together of diverse influences and people – all of these appeal to young adults.  In the US and Europe, the young disproportionately want to live in cities, and for the highly ambitious, the numbers are even higher.

The Cultural “Elites” – the second group is made up of those who have disproportionate influence on how human life is lived in a society because they exert power in business, publishing the media, the academy and the arts. These people spend much of their time or live in city centers.

Accessible “Unreached” People Groups – the currents of history are now sweeping many formerly unreached people into cities as rural economies fail to sustain the old ways of life. These newcomers need help and support to face the moral, economic, emotional, and spiritual pressures of city life, and this is an opportunity for the church to serve them with supportive community, a new spiritual family, and a liberating gospel message.

The Poor – a fourth group of people who must be reached in cities is the poor. Some have estimated that one-third of the people representing the new growth in cities in the developing world will live in shantytowns. A great majority of the world’s poor live in cities, and there is an important connection between reaching the urban elites and serving the poor of your city.

The cities of the world will continue to grow in significance and power. Because of this, they remain just as strategic – if not more so – than they were in the days of Paul and the early church.

  • If Christians want to reach the unreached, we must go to the cities.
  • To reach the rising generations, we must go to the cities.
  • To have any impact for Christ on the creation of culture, we must go to the cities.
  • To serve the poor, we must go to the cities.

– Tim Keller

In Center Church, Timothy Keller offers challenging insights and provocative questions based on over twenty years of ministry in New York City. This book outlines a theological vision for ministry—based on classic doctrines but rethinking our assumptions about church for our time and place—organized around three core commitments:

  1. Gospel-centered: The gospel of grace in Jesus Christ changes everything, from our hearts to our community to the world. It completely reshapes the content, tone and strategy of all that we do.
  2. City-centered: Cities increasingly influence our global culture and affect the way we do ministry. With a positive approach toward our culture, we learn to affirm that cities are wonderful, strategic and underserved places for gospel ministry.
  3. Movement-centered: Instead of building our own tribe, we seek the prosperity and peace of our community as we are led by the Holy Spirit.


Next: 7 Features of a Church for the City

Leaders Acknowledge the Paradox of Expertise

It has been said that all leaders live under the same sky, but not all view the same horizon. Some leaders see a wider horizon and keep their eye on the emerging skyline. Continual learning contributes to their sense of adventure and their ability to steer their organization. Others, however, unknowingly wear blinders. The shifting horizons don’t signal new opportunities because they are unanticipated and out of view.

In this sense, strategic planning is often limited because it keeps blinders on leadership. Auxano founder Will Mancini calls this “fallacy of predictability.” The assumption is that the near future will resemble the recent past. But rapid cultural change has meddled with this assumption. Change now happens so fast that the planning processes of yesteryear are obsolete. Unfortunately, not even the future is what it used to be.

If the North American church is going to avoid the slow but sure death guaranteed by “we’ve always done it that way,” it will have to shift its understanding of both the past that was and the future that is not going to be more of the same.

According to Reggie McNeal, the churches that prepare for the new world will ride the wave of the growth that is possible. Those who don’t prepare will continue to plan their way into cultural irrelevance, methodological obsolescence, and missional ineffectiveness in terms of being kingdom outposts.

THE QUICK SUMMARY – Simply Brilliant by William C. Taylor

Far away from Silicon Valley, in familiar, traditional, even unglamorous fields, ordinary people are unleashing extraordinary advances that amaze customers, energize employees, and create huge economic value. Their secret? They understand that the work of inventing the future doesn’t just belong to geeks designing mobile apps and virtual-reality headsets, or to social-media entrepreneurs hoping to launch the next Facebook. Some of today’s most compelling organizations are doing brilliant things in simple settings such as retail banks, office cleaning companies, department stores, small hospitals, and auto dealerships.

William C. Taylor, cofounder of Fast Company and best-selling author of Practically Radical, traveled thousands of miles to visit these hotbeds of simple brilliance and unearth the principles and practices behind their success. He offers fascinating case studies and powerful lessons that you can apply to do ordinary things in extraordinary ways, regardless of your industry or profession.

As Taylor writes: “The story of this book, its message for leaders who aim to do something important and build something great, is both simple and subversive: In a time of wrenching disruptions and exhilarating advances, of unrelenting turmoil and unlimited promise, the future is open to everybody. The thrill of breakthrough creativity and breakaway performance . . . can be summoned in all sorts of industries and all walks of life, if leaders can reimagine what’s possible in their fields.” Simply Brilliant shows you how.


Most artists look for something fresh to paint; frankly I find that quite boring. For me it is much more exciting to find fresh meaning in something familiar. -Andrew Wyeth

Andrew Wyeth did not look constantly for fresh things to paint; rather, he was excited to find fresh meaning in things that were familiar. The beginning point in ascertaining vision is nothing less than the work of scrutinizing the obvious.

This represents a paradigm shift for leaders. Many leaders see what is, and accept it without looking for deeper or newer meanings. When leaders are “successful” at something, the tendency is to move on to the next thing. After all, you don’t mess with success.

Expertise is powerful…until it gets in the way of innovation. In a world being remade before our eyes, leaders who make a big difference are the ones who challenge the logic of their field – and of their own success.

One of the sobering lessons of the great transformations in business, leadership, and society in the last few decades is that the people and organizations with the most experience, knowledge, and resources in a particular field are often the last ones to see and seize opportunities for something dramatically new.

The storyline has become so familiar that the questions almost answer themselves: All too often, what we know limits what we can imagine.

Cynthia Barton Rabe, a former innovation strategist at Intel, coined a memorable term to describe this debilitating form of strategic blindness. Too may companies and leaders, often the best companies and most successful leaders, struggle with what she calls the “paradox of expertise” – the frustrating reality that the more deeply immersed you are in a market, a product category, or a technology, the harder it becomes to open your mind to new models that may reshape everything. Past results may not be the enemy of subsequent breakthroughs, but they can constrain the capacity to grasp the future.

In other words, the more closely you’ve looked at the field, and the longer you’ve been looking at it in the same way, the more difficult it can be to see new patterns, prospects, or possibilities.

There is a more sustained way to transcend the paradox of expertise, a mindset that draws on the best of what’s come before without closing off what may come next. It’s called “provocative competence,” and it comes from the world of jazz.

William C. Taylor, Simply Brilliant


In his captivating book “Yes to the Mess,” Frank J. Barrett combines his accomplishment as a jazz musician with a background in teaching at the Naval Postgraduate School. In drawing all sorts of leadership lessons from jazz, Barrett states that so-so musicians allow themselves to fall into the competency trap by “relying on licks that have been greeted enthusiastically in past performances, to become in effect imitations of themselves.”

Great musicians manage to “outwit their learned habits by putting themselves in unfamiliar musical situations demanding novel responses.” According to Barrett, provocative competence is “leadership that enlivens activity and rouses the mind to life.”

In jazz, as well as on your church team, we need leaders who do this—men and women who support imaginative leaps, who can create a context that enhances creative possibilities and triggers glimpses, sudden insights, bold speculation, imaginative ventures, and a willingness (even an insistence) that people explore new possibilities before there is certainty and before they fully comprehend the meaning of what they are doing.

Schedule a future team meeting and walk through the five elements of “provocative competence” by discussing the following:

  • Provocative competence is an affirmative move. The leader must first hold a positive image of what others are capable of. This often means seeing other people’s strengths better than they see their own strengths. It’s important to create a holding culture, an environment that provides enough stability and reassurance so that people know there is a safety net, someone to watch their backs as they branch out.
  • Provocative competence involves introducing a small disruption to routine. It is an art to introduce just enough unusual material or thought that it engages people to be mindful – to pay attention in new ways. Timing is critical: Too much disruption on a regular basis will cause it to soon be ignored; too little would seem to be just a stunt.
  • Provocative competence creates situations that demand activity. Leaders push their teams to try and try again to keep trying and discovering as they go. There’s not “sitting this one out” or taking a break to figure everything out.
  • Provocative competence facilitates incremental reorientation by encouraging repetition. Think of it as a comfort zone – but not one that is too comfortable. Even while people are leaning on old habits, they have to attend to new options, and start to manage and process information within a newer, broader context.
  • Provocative competence is analogic sharpening of perspectives and thought processes. Your team should start to make parallel links with seemingly unrelated contexts and see linkages between seemingly disparate ideas.

Saying, “yes to the mess” means finding affirmation in the best of what already exists. Every group, every individual has some strength, some moment of exceptional performance that has the potential to make a difference at some point. Truly gifted leaders—those who practice and exhibit provocative competence—are able to uncover this potential even when it is well hidden, even when the individuals in question can’t see it in themselves.

Excerpt taken from SUMS Remix 110-2, published February 2019.


Part of a weekly series on 27gen, entitled Wednesday Weekly Reader

Regular daily reading of books is an important part of my life. It even extends to my vocation, where as Vision Room Curator for Auxano I am responsible for publishing SUMS Remix, a biweekly book “excerpt” for church leaders. Each Wednesday on 27gen I will be taking a look back at previous issues of SUMS Remix and publishing an excerpt.

>>Purchase SUMS Remix here<<

>> Purchase prior issues of SUMS Remix here<<

The Words We Use: How Our Lives Create Our Language

It’s amazing how our brain can connect events separated by several years and spur us on to discover more about the world around us.

A few years ago I was consulting with a church in the Bronx, and was fascinated by the NY subway. The next year, I spent several days in a hotel in Nashville, TN that had its origins as the train station for the L&N railroad – which I traveled on as a boy to St. Louis, MO. Last fall, I flew into Baltimore and took the train from the airport to Union Station in DC, where I had a couple of days of meetings and sightseeing.

It will come as no surprise to regular readers that this curiosity turned to recreational research in the world of books: histories of subways in general, the ones in New York City in particular, and histories of railroads, starting with the ones in and around New York City.

Reading the book Grand Central, two particular passages caught my eye:

Not long after the Harlem Railroad linked the teeming city of New York to country homes in Harlem, what would become the Bronx, and the Westchester and to small Hudson Valley villages, a perceptive railroad superintendent remembered only as M. Sloat noticed a new class of customer: the repeat passenger, whose to-and-fro trips to work and home represented a potential marketing bonanza. Seizing the opportunity, the railroad initiated an imaginative fare structure for tickets based on a onetime passage or even a round trip, but on unlimited rides for six months or a full year at a steep discount from the single-fare rate.

The full fare was commuted, and with one bold entrepreneurial stroke the commuter – in name, at the very least – was officially born.

Cornelius Vanderbilt (owner of the above mentioned Harlem line), the steamboat tycoon turned railroad magnate, had an on-again, off-again relationship with Daniel Drew, a devilishly clever Wall Street buccaneer.

Drew’s reputation for bloating his cattle by quenching their thirst before delivering them to market and for later outwitting Vanderbilt by diluting Erie Railroad shares would give rise to a double meaning of the term watered-down stock.

The origins of words are fascinating. Here are two terms commonly used in our vocabulary today that were taken from the 1870s. They exist because of the rapidly ascending influence of new technology and industry – the railroad.

Of course, today is a little different…

I’m just wondering – what words are we creating today from the rapidly-changing world we live in?


Quotes from Grand Central: How a Train Station Transformed America, by Sam Roberts