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.
I’ll try to comment…
Nice one, Martin 😉
Yoda’s comment seems profound. In essence: “try” implies that you think you might fail, which implies doubt, and doubt makes you fail.
That’s great for a psuedomystical force in a movie. But in the real world, we have the recent Michael Jordan meme of how many times he tried and failed, and that made him a success. Trying, in that sense, means two related things: taking a chance, and practice. Practice builds skills, and skills lead to success. And taking a chance is vital, because without that you can’t succeed; but just taking a chance — just trying — doesn’t guarantee success.
Yoda’s advice — which I’ve probably quoted as much as anyone — can lead to two failure: false confidence (“Do”) and false doubt (“Or do not.”). False confidence: “I believe, so I can do this!” No, sorry. Belief is necessary but not sufficient, as the mathematicians say.
And false doubt: “I don’t know if I can do this, so why try?” Because the only way to get to “can” is through “try”. If you try, you may get better, until eventually you can. If you don’t try, you’ll never get better. You’ll always be stuck on “Do not”.
Remember, Yoda was voiced by Frank Oz, the man who also voiced Fozzie Bear. Do you really think it’s wise to take career advice from Fozzie Bear?
I don’t know, Fozzie is pretty cool. But I see your points on “try” for you in represents something different than it does for me. I like to just “do.” Try represents that I’ve accepted failure as an outcome that will make it sufficient to give up after I “try” — I don’t mind failure after I “do” a thing, but I don’t want to use it as an excuse to give up. “At least I tried” Those are words that have a major effect on my cognition–but maybe not on someone else.
I wish you wouldn’t voice my internal monologues so publicly, but ok. “This sucks. I will never make a living at this. People are laughing at me.” Pretty much the contents of my brain. But we must not try but actually ‘do’ remain ever positive, that’s when the magic begins. Great post, Tina!
Secretly I went fishing in your brain last night. Boom! That’s how I role.
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Hi Tina, really interesting post. Like Pamela above it was the thoughts about your writing that struck me and how that can cloud creativity and made me think of another unrelated blog post on this topic I read recently. Hope you find it interesting
Jane!! What a great comment and I loved the blog post you linked to. It’s a very interesting question (If nobody saw your work would you still create?) as a writer it’s a tough one. My focus is to write commercial fiction and so I think part of me wants to know if I hit my reader’s cookies or not. However, there is that side of me that wrote for years and nobody ever saw what I worked on, and I would have been fine going on that way. It was enjoyable in a whole different way. My personality must be one that strives for purpose, because I think the wanting others to see what I’ve created for them does win out most of the time. So hard to say!! But majorly thought provoking article.