Why words matter more than we realize

Understanding the words I use, and why I use them, is one of my secrets to achieving my goals. Realizing this skill exists, and how to use it, didn’t happen until I was well into my working life. 

For a long time I used phrases like: 

  • “It should work”
  • “I’ll try to…”
  • “Maybe I will”
  • “One day I’ll”
  • and my favorite – “I hope…”

When I used them I knew I wasn’t really committing to anything. Saying “I would” complete a task on time was riskier than saying “I would try”. What if I didn’t complete the task? 

As a kid I remember entering a Karate Kata competition. Before the competition began, I told my mother I would win 1st place. Not “try”, not “maybe I would win”, but “I would win”. I’m not sure why I was so certain that day, there were lots of students competing, and I wasn’t a star student. I started each round with focus, strangely not thinking about winning, instead concentrating on showing strength, fluidity, and discipline in each move. 

The qualifying stages are a blur, I only remember the final round between myself and another child. We started at the same time, but my movements were stronger and more purposeful. My opponent seemed to be rushing the movements, so eventually I started falling behind in the steps, and he finished first. I kept going at my own speed, knowing everyone was watching. The Kata competition wasn’t a race, it was about the execution of each step, and each step flowing into the next. I blocked out the crowd and took extra care in finishing the remaining steps. 

I don’t know exactly what won me the trophy, but I like to think it was the moment that I fell behind, and how I handled it. Sadly, that composure didn’t reappear until years later in high school, when I used it to ace exams. Eventually, I found a way to call on it during tough situations, as if it were my special super power.

I found a way to steamroll through life with good grades and a college degree, but something was slowing me down. When I started looking into investing seriously, I found mentors often talked about mindset, and programming the mind with words. I had doubts words could be that powerful, it all seemed a little too mystical for me. It was too embarrassing to read a self-help book on the commute to work, so I listened to audio books and recordings of motivational speakers instead. I still remember waking up on the bus, everyone staring at me, because my headphones were blaring out “I have a millionaire mind!”.

Improving our financial situation was really important to me, so I committed to paying more attention to the words I used. It was clumsy at first, but I started getting good at catching myself being vague and noncommittal. I found I’d been using words to program my mind already, like in the Karate competition, and at school. I also realized I’d been using words to hold myself back, like telling myself I was a “book person”, and no good at sports. The audio books, recordings, and my own experimentation helped me to understand how to use words to motivate myself.

My interactions with other people became better too, because I paid more attention to how people said things. In the workplace I could read between the lines and steer away from trouble, or towards it. This skill became very important in building teams, because people were careless with their words, and revealed their true attitude towards projects and tasks. I became better at avoiding overoptimistic advisors and uncommitted team mates, which could have sunk deals and projects. It didn’t always work perfectly, but with practice the results improved.

Meeting other people with similar training was always exciting. This usually happened with skilled sales people, or people in very senior positions at work. I almost preferred dealing with these people, because it seemed our interactions were bound by rules and expected behavior. 

As a father, I could see the power of words, and how they can shape a person. Being retired meant I could spend more time with my son, and see how he interacted with other people. He had no shortage of confidence, but I could see how words held him back, or spurred him on. Listening to him speak made me realize words were maybe more powerful when feeling powerless. This little kid, in a world governed by adults, had words as his most effective weapon. He, like his friends, were figuring out how and when to use them.

In retirement, I spend a lot of my time teaching my son things I wished I’d learnt as a kid. Understanding the words he and others use is a skill that he seems to have picked up quickly. It makes me wonder if I was the same when I was younger. Had I forgotten this skill due to age, or my environment? Interacting with my son, and reflecting back on my own life, makes me appreciate how important words are, whether we mean to use them or not.


Why words matter more than we realize

Joe retired in his mid-thirties to spend more time with his young family. He started this blog to share his story, help others plan their path to retirement, and enjoy retired life.

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