Words matter. Yet, their influence on us is often so subtle that we don’t even realize how they may be guiding and limiting our thinking. Without our being conscious of or intentional, the words we choose and the patterns of speech we habitually use can be holding us back, even when we are trying to tap into our spontaneity and creativity. Equally important, if we are unaware of the power of words and their influence on our thought and behavior patterns, they can be inflicting harm and creating barriers to our becoming our best selves and doing our best work.
Of course, there are times and situations in which we need to limit the scope of our thinking and focus on a narrow set of elements and options. However, even at these times it is important that we are aware of the choices we are making and how our words can help us to frame situations and experiences to help us accomplish our goals.
The key is to be intentional about the actions we can take and frame the situation we face with words and phrases that will align our thinking with the outcomes we seek. Let’s explore some examples of when our words can influence our thinking and the actions we take.
Consider the implications of asking “why” versus “why not.” When we ask “why,” we are seeking reasons, rationale, and arguments. When we ask “why not,” we are exploring possibilities, challenging barriers, and questioning common assumptions. Asking “why” assumes a position of inaction while asking “why not” assumes a position of action. John F. Kennedy famously presented this dichotomy in his inaugural speech, claiming the “why not” position for himself and his generation. The so called “greatest generation,” of which Kennedy was a member, leveraged the idea of “why not” to achieve unprecedented progress and success for our nation. Certainly, there are times when asking “why” is appropriate and necessary, but real creativity and smart risk-taking grows out of asking “why not?”
Next, consider the power of focusing on “what could be” rather than “what should be.” When we give our attention to what we should be, or what we should do, we tap into set expectations, we pay attention to established processes and parameters, and we defer to judgements about what is appropriate. Conversely, when we ask “what could be,” we open the doors to a wide range of possibilities, we ignite our imagination, we activate our creativity, and we free ourselves to attempt what may never have been done before. When we are preoccupied with what should be, we are responding to what others think, acting out of fear of not measuring up, and limiting ourselves to what is conventional. There are times when we need to consider and respond to what should be in deference to the situation and how others may be affected. However, real growth, new ideas, creative breakthroughs, and life changing experiences come from asking “what could be?”
Further, consider the difference between describing a situation as a problem versus seeing the situation as an opportunity. Problems exist to be solved and prevented from reoccurring. Opportunities, on the other hand, represent occasions for exploration, inventing, leveraging, and moving forward. Interestingly, the same set of circumstance might be described as either a problem or an opportunity. Yet, the words we choose to define the situation can have a dramatic impact on our thinking, the actions we take, and the outcomes that result from our efforts.
These examples of the power of words and their relationship to our thinking represent crucial insights to how we choose to engage in and respond to our life experiences. In our professional lives, choosing to ask “why not,” exploring “what could be,” and interpreting challenges as opportunities will define the path our careers will take. Teaching and coaching our students to think “why not,” “what could be,” and focusing on opportunities can build lifelong skills and habits that will be transformational. Of course, each of these examples of word and thinking choices can also have important impacts on our personal lives and relationships. What choices will you make?