I’ve always been fascinated with the power of words. How words are used to convey ideas. How a word can mean multiple things to different people, how words can inspire, and if used the wrong way, how damaging they can be. Here’s a story to illustrate. It’s a five minute read, but perhaps you will find something of value in return for your time.
Tim was on his high school football team. He was fairly athletic, and fast enough to do the job, but just never seemed to have what it took to be on the starting squad. His coaches usually put him in when the game had been decided one way or another. The last game of the season, in the last few minutes when his team was in the lead, the starting defensive safety got hurt. Tim was up, this was his chance. If he could just keep the other team from scoring, his team would win. As he buttoned his helmet and ran on the field from the sidelines, his coach said “OK Tim, just don’t get burned.” Those words stuck with him as he ran onto the field…”don’t get burned” he said it over a few times as the opposing team came to the line. The play unfolded right at him, the receiver ran a quick pattern, smoothly accelerated around him as the ball met his outstretched hands just out of Tim’s reach. He got burned. He felt terrible. As he came back to the sidelines, his coaches wouldn’t even look at him. On the bus home, he was sitting behind the starting safety, Paul. He told Paul he was sorry he blew it, and asked how Paul was able to consistently avoid getting burned. Paul said, “Well, sometimes it happens to me too, but when I’m out there I look at the receiver and tell myself “I’ve got him covered. If the ball comes my way I will be the one to get it or knock it down. I will get that ball. I just keep telling myself that I will get that ball.” Tim thought about it, he had a flicker of recognition that there was something different between what he had told himself and what Paul consistently did, but it soon got buried under the bundle of shame and guilt over the game.
A few years later, Tim had joined the Marines and was going through his initial training. The candidates were being tested to see if they had the endurance to make it, and they were halfway through a ten mile hike with full gear. Tim knew if he didn’t keep up it would hurt and even possibly end his career before it started. He was hot, sore, tired and aching. His platoon sergeant had just come by and noticed Tim was hurting. He yelled at him…”I see that look in your eye, you better not fall out of this formation…” Tim thought about all that was at stake and repeated it to himself….”you better not fall out”, over and over to himself. It helped for a bit, but after a few minutes he slowly fell behind. Luckily, his platoon stopped for a quick break before it was evident. One of the older guys in the platoon came over. “What’s up with you?” he said. “I’m hurting, I don’t know if I can make it.” “OK, I hear you” the older guy said. “Look at me.” Tim looked up. “When we start back up, I want you to tell yourself something, OK?” “OK” Tim said. “You tell yourself that you can do this all day. You tell yourself that you are good to go and that you will stay in this formation. You will make it. You will stay in this formation. Got it?” “Got it” said Tim. The hike was tough, but as Tim finished with his platoon he was filled with pride and felt like if he could make it through that hike, he could make it through anything. Later that evening, he didn’t remember much about the second half of the hike except the words echoing through his mind “you will make it.”
A week later, Tim was on the rifle range, qualifying with his weapon. His shots were inconsistent. Some would go high, some low, and some right on target. His Platoon Sergeant came by and chastised him, “You’re jerking the trigger, that’s what’s causing that pathetic pattern of yours. Don’t jerk the trigger.” Tim tried not to jerk the trigger, and it worked for a little while, but he soon fell back into the same pattern. The range coach noticed it and came by during a scoring break. “OK, look at me.” He said. “Now, when you are firing, I want you to remember something. Are you listening?” “Yes” Tim said. “Slow steady squeeze” said the coach. “That’s what I want you to do. Slow steady squeeze.” The coach had him dry fire a couple rounds. (pulling the trigger with no round in the chamber just to practice) “Remember, slow, steady squeeze. Say it back to me.” “Slow, steady squeeze”, repeated Tim, with confidence. From then on, his shots were consistently better. It took him a while, but once he mastered the other techniques of marksmanship, they were dead center, every time. As he pinned his “Expert” badge on his uniform, that flicker of recognition of the pattern that he had first noticed on the long bus ride home back in high school suddenly struck him.
It became clear to him that his mind and body were connected far more than he ever realized. More importantly though, he realized that his subconscious mind was really the one in charge much of the time. Especially when there was no time to think, or during periods of stress, or when he was just running on “autopilot” and not really thinking. At a deeper level, his subconscious mind didn’t seem to recognize words negative commands, or “do nots”. While his conscious mind heard “Don’t get burned.”, his subconscious mind landed and stuck on the word “burned”. When the conscious mind heard “Don’t jerk the trigger, or “don’t fall out”, what stuck were essentially commands to “Jerk” and “Fall out”.
Don’t think about penguins.
What kinds of things do you tell yourself? What do you tell your spouse, your kids, and your co-workers? What if you made a subtle change to how you talked to yourself and those around you every day?