Our words define us. The words we use echo our thoughts and drive our daily actions. As the great poet Ursula K. Le Guin put it,
“Words are events, they do things, change things. They transform both speaker and hearer; they feed energy back and forth and amplify it. They feed understanding or emotion back and forth and amplify it.”
Our words create our mindset. Our words reflect the view we have of ourselves. The energy they carry has the potential to either drain or empower us. With each word we use, we have the opportunity to reinforce and strengthen our identity.
The prolific thinker Ralph Waldo Emerson wisely told us, “a man is what he thinks about all day long.”
Is there any better definition of who we truly are? And is there any reason not to use this knowledge to improve our life?
No Thought Is Singular
As the great Stoic philosopher and Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius once said, “our life is what our thoughts make it.” Our words reflect our thoughts. They determine our actions. Given the magnitude of their impact, most of us are surprisingly cavalier about the ones we choose.
Linguist Charles J. Fillmore developed the concept of semantic framing, stating that we think, largely unconsciously, in terms of conceptual frames. Each thought is related within a structure. In this way, every thought, every word, is interrelated within a larger perspective.
The words we choose are not a single use entity, to be forgotten the moment they’ve left our mouth. They have a lasting impact on our overall perspectives. They effect how we see the world. And they influence how we see ourselves.
There are few easier changes that can have such a profound impact on our lives. With each one, we gain the opportunity for a new perspective on life.
As I’ve written before, one of the benefits of writing is taking the time to better notice the details of my daily actions. It was this insight which helped me recognize the caustic nature of my current words. And it also helped me stay on point with improving a number of them.
Here’s eight changes that have helped me. I doubt all eight will apply to everyone. But maybe one might help you see the world, and yourself, a little differently.
No Time vs Not a Priority
Our schedules are packed. There’s never enough time for everything that we want to do. And usually the first things we cut are time for exercise, time for personal development, and time with our families.
We resolve to make changes and find more time. But there never seems to be any time to find. Rarely are we able to stumble across an undisclosed cache of free time on our schedule.
The reality is that we’ll never find time. We need to make time. We need to recognize our priorities and give them the time that they deserve.
So instead of saying “you don’t have the time,” try saying “it’s not a priority.”
Don’t tell me you don’t have time to go to the gym. Say you aren’t going to exercise today because you decided your health isn’t a priority.
Don’t tell me you need to work late and don’t have time for your family. Say that today your family isn’t a high enough priority.
Your actions are already saying it. You might as well be honest with yourself.
And if this makes you uncomfortable, consider making a change to your priorities.
Know vs Think
“To be conscious that you are ignorant of the facts is a great step to knowledge.” – Benjamin Disraeli
Knowing is fixed. It says we’re done searching for knowledge on a subject. It gives us permission to be cynical of all other views and information.
Thinking is dynamic. It’s today’s belief based on today’s information. It recognizes our current views but also acknowledges our lack of absolute knowledge. And it keeps an open mind to new information.
The world of instant opinions and reactions to reactions pushes us to know, regardless of how informed we are. That world wants us to take firm stands and defend them regardless.
It’s an appeal to tribalism, not to intelligence. It pushes cynicism because it’s propagated by those whose story can’t afford deeper scrutiny.
The alternative is to resist. To think. As Maya Angelou wisely counseled,
“There is nothing quite so tragic as a young cynic, because it means the person has gone from knowing nothing to believing nothing,”
Commit to thinking. Leave knowing for the cynics.
Problem vs Circumstance
“For every ailment under the sun,
There is a remedy, or there is none;
If there be one, try to find it,
If there be none, never mind it.”
– Mother Goose
If it’s not actionable, it’s not a problem. It’s a circumstance.
We waste time worrying about circumstances outside of our control instead of applying that energy towards something we can actually influence.
Everything that has happened up to this moment in our lives is now a circumstance. It does no good to ruminate over the possibilities of past decisions. We can only learn and apply those lessons to actual problems going forward.
Once we recognize our circumstances, we can choose solutions that account for them. We can recognize that an ideal solution may be impractical and we can look to make the best decision within the circumstances we’re in.
When we recognize those areas we cannot change, we’re much better equipped to follow Reinhold Niebuhr’s immortal Serenity Prayer,
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.”
Can’t vs Don’t
Can’t says we’re fighting against ourselves. It says that someone else is in charge. “I can’t eat that donut,” speaks of internal turmoil. We want to do it but we’re constrained.
Don’t, on the other hand, is empowering. It tells us we’re in charge. “I don’t eat junk food,” is a resounding statement. It leaves no room for internal conflict. In it, we reinforce both our resolve and commitment.
Would you rather be told what you can’t do, or choose what you don’t do?
Relaxation vs Recovery
With the daily pressure for ultra-productivity, most of us feel that an hour relaxing in front of the television is wasted time. Think of all the much more productive things we could be doing!
So we continually push through each day, loading ourselves up with more responsibilities and demands.
But we all need some downtime. It lets our mind recover and gives us back a degree of sanity. It helps give us the clarity and control that helps us make good decisions.
How do we balance this need to constantly feel productive without losing our sanity?
Enter Tim Ferriss. When asked a similar question, he advised a listener to consider our downtime as recovery instead of relaxation.
Relaxing implies sloth, laying about watching Netflix marathons all weekend with two days worth of pizza and Chinese food piled up on the couch. If we consider our downtime as relaxing, it’s not surprising that we feel guilty about it.
But if we consider it as recovery, it becomes a critical step in both achieving and sustaining top performance.
When we exercise, our bodies need a recovery period. Otherwise we’re too worn out to exercise hard the next time. Our minds work in the same way. We need this downtime to let our minds come back strong for the next round.
Whether that’s reading, napping, or watching the latest episode of Mr. Robot, it’s not a waste of time. It’s an investment. It helps us recharge so when we return, we’re again able to perform at a high level.
Stop relaxing. Start recovering. Your mind needs it.
Failed vs Learned
For everyone who’s determined to brave the arena, failure isn’t a question of if, but when. We set high expectations for ourselves and it’s upsetting to fall short.
In the little known masterpiece, Twelve Against the Gods, the late William Bolitho tells the story of history’s greats and their ego-driven failures. In it, Bolitho gives us the following advice on leveraging our failures with humility,
“The most important thing in life is not to capitalize on your gains. Any fool can do that. The really important thing is to profit from your losses. That requires intelligence; and it makes the difference between a man of sense and a fool.”
With each false step, setback, or dead end, don’t think of it as a failure. Each one presents an opportunity to learn. And an opportunity to come back stronger next time. Because as the wise and wonderful Debbie Millman once said, “It’s not a failure until you accept defeat.”
Ability vs Capability
“Talent is only the starting point,” was the wise advice from composer Irving Berlin, a man widely considered as one of the greatest songwriters in American history.
The question then becomes what we’ll do with it.
Will we push to build on that talent? Or will we be satisfied to rest on our current skills?
We often evaluate ourselves (and others) on ability. We look at our skills and qualifications. We hire, take positions, promote, and reward all based on today’s abilities. Far less often do we appreciate people’s capabilities. We value today’s skill over tomorrow’s growth potential.
Matt Mullenweg once said he considered work ethic, taste, integrity, and curiosity to be the most important traits when evaluating talent. With these traits, he felt people could learn anything. In this mindset, the premium is on growth potential. Today’s experience is only a short-cut.
With this practice, Matt tries to hire people who will adapt as the company changes. He’s much more focused on tomorrow’s capability than today’s ability.
Today’s job will likely be very different than a job in five years. Today’s ability won’t ensure tomorrow’s success. Tomorrow’s capability will.
Confidence vs Courage
In How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, Scott Adams tells a story about one of his first public speaking classes. One woman stood up for her turn to speak, but was so overcome with nerves, she couldn’t find her voice. After struggling to speak for a few minutes in front of everyone, she returned to her seat in shame.
As the twenty-something other students watched this woman crash and burn, the instructor stood up and said, “Wow, that was brave.”
In four words, he completely reinterpreted the situation. People hadn’t witnessed an act of humiliation but one of tremendous bravery.
What would you find more impressive, someone who confidently delivers a speech that they know they can do, or someone who courageously stands in front of a crowd despite the fact that they’re terrified?
Which act is more likely to lead to growth?
Relying on confidence limits us. It keeps us working in the familiar. But courage, courage let’s us take that first step into uncertainty.
As writer Dani Shapiro described her creative process,
“I’ve got to dive in. Only by diving will there be water underneath me…hopefully. And there’s no way of knowing until you do it.”
Focus on developing courage over confidence. Courage lets us take that first step. Courage lets us dive in.
Make the Change Today
What words determine your perspectives? What words drive your actions?
Notice. And consider, are they empowering you or draining you?
And if it’s the latter, then why are you still using those words?