I was thinking of a Star Wars quote from Yoda; something like “try or try not, do or do not.” Or maybe it was: “there is no try only do.” Anyway it got me pondering about the connotation of certain words and motivation.
(Self editing note; Apparently neither of these is a quote from Yoda. Because the powers of Google cannot let this stand I’ve made an offering of the correct quote to the internet god’s volcano of quotes: Do. Or do not. There is no try~Yoda in the Empire Strikes Back)
First I should probably explain connotation. It’s the feeling expressed by certain words. For example, we can describe a person with pressed lips and a wrinkled forehead as a “scowl.” The word scowl has a negative connotation. We think of scowls as a mean expression. Now if I described this same expression as “thoughtful” it changes the image a bit. We soften the features of the imaginary person. Thoughtful has a positive connotation, meaning we tend to think of “thoughtful” as a pleasant expression. I’ve completely changed the mood of the person by changing only one word. Yet, if I were to describe the facial features of both words, they would be very similar in the basic explanation.
Poets, writers, and politicians seem to have a grasp on this little mis-mash vortex where English crosses with psychology. So you’ll notice that people will choose words carefully to provoke emotion when telling a certain story—to paint a very specific picture. Riling up emotion isn’t difficult, especially if someone already is predisposed to feeling a certain way about a topic. You can change someone’s mind by not changing the action, but simply the words used to describe the action.
Some words are harder to pinpoint and can be negative or positive depending on the context. One group of people might like the word and take ownership of it. Another group would see the same word as an insult. Some words might change connotation depending on an individual’s cultural, environmental, or socio-economic status.
In counseling we’re trained on how to change someone’s behavior and emotions by using a technique called cognitive-behavioral therapy. And this is where my pondering on Yoda began.
So, consider the word “try.” Does it have a negative or positive connotation for you? I realized it had a more negative leaning with me. Here’s why: I’m from the country and pretty low on the socio-economic ladder with my background. We value what a person does rather than what they say. If I say I’m going to “try” it’s a pretty weak statement. Trying is not doing. Trying is saying I’m afraid of getting a little failure on my favorite shirt. There is only do it or don’t do it in my world. Yet, when I attended college there was an attempt to reframe the word try. “Give it a try!” or “At least you tried!” were supposed to be positive affirmations. And it did change the way I saw the word. It went from being a dirty word to something I’d give a second chance to…try again.
*insert mad giggle*
I noticed that when the word was introduced in my goals or if someone made a “try” suggestion in writing I’d avoid it. It usually wouldn’t get done. “Try to not use adverbs” I’d adverb all over the damn white space like a potty training toddler. Then I’d get frustrated and do the opposite. I’d cut adverbs from my life like a cheating ex-boyfriend. Try made me do silly things.
It was not just the word try that had this power over me, but other words, too. If I set a goal and it was connected to a certain behavior or emotion if it was positive then I’d do it. If it was negative, I wouldn’t.
So knowing that the words I used had a power over my behavior, I described my goals differently. Less of a suggestion and more of a command (also: I list only two simple goals a day. Something I learned in a Margie Lawson class. If I listed a ton of things, I could beat myself up later about not doing enough, so I learned to break things into small components and do them a little at a time. The more success I could introduce into my goals, the more motivated I would become. And it would change the connotation of the word “goal” to mean something I could attain, not an impossible set of posts I had to hit a ball between every time or I’d fail my team).
I noticed that a lot of people who weren’t athletes, or didn’t do well in competitions tended to shy away from making goals (like they floundered when introduced to competition and freaked out if it looked like they’d never win, or would be expected to count on others… or gasp, others count on them!). Is it the word or the action that makes them so distrustful of the behavior? Or just the action/word/behavior pairing they’ve learned over a lifetime that has shaped their emotion on a word?
Now the word controls their behavior. Wow, this is getting creepy.
Anyway, our history with certain words might make a difference on how likely we are to complete an action. And by eliminating ‘try’ it helped me with mine. Plus, I tend to adhere to the cognitive-behavioral framework and pair positive actions with positive thoughts to change my view on a task. Oh, I’ll still be the usual writerly stressed while doing it. “Will people like it? Will it sell?” But at least I’m doing it, and at least I’m not feeding myself negative answers like “It sucks” or “I’m never going to make a living at this” “People are laughing at you.” I could easily change the word “writing” into a negative, disappointing task if I were to pair it with hurtful phrases.
Think about the words you use and take care. They really are powerful.
I love comments! Every comment you make will help a writer break free from negative word/action/ behavior chains that are binding them into lack of motivation.