The Most Underrated Advice I’ve Ever Received.

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It all started with one question. It usually does doesn’t it? The question came up over a dinner conversation with a neighbor the other evening. My neighbor was a woman whom I greatly admired. She seemed successful, not just financially, but she radiated with this sense of inner wealth you could feel. Something she had probably spent her entire lifetime cultivating. I was curious, I wanted to know her secret, from everything she had experienced in her life, what had she come to learn as her biggest truth, her secret sauce?

I asked her and watched her sit back and think, scanning her life experiences for her one truth. I prepared myself for the wisdom that was about to fall from her lips. She said it once, then slowly repeated it once more.


“Words matter” she said.

I sat for a moment trying not to act too underwhelmed. THAT was it? “I mean yeah of course, words matter” I thought, “But this was her biggest truth?”

One week later, this truth of hers had dug its way down deep into my being, and I am now unable to escape its grip.

Let’s take one word as an example, most of us can probably relate to struggling with.


I was on the phone with a friend the other day. He asked me what I had been up to and I paused. “What had I been doing?” I thought. I had felt so busy, my days had been full, but with what? “What was actually getting done? Had I been productive at all?” I thought to myself. The mere question sent waves of frustration throughout my body.

I noticed my conversations that week followed a similar theme, and not just on my end. Most conversations began with a “How are you, what’s going on?” And most of them were answered 1 of 2 ways. “It’s been a good, productive week.” Or the opposite. This word ruled my world and apparently I wasn’t the only one.

But productivity can have many meanings can’t it? The word cannot possibly mean the same thing to everyone. Just like happiness or peace, there are an infinite amount of meanings assigned to these words. So what was my definition of productivity? This word that defined my mood, ruled my world, how did I define it, or was it defining me? What did I want it to mean to me?

In a recent interview on the On Being podcast with Ocean Vuong, author of, “On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous,” Ocean states that a majority of us live our lives ruled by the anxiety of being productive and quantifying our self worth.

“Always be producing, the mythos of capitalism” he says.

He goes on to say this, “You’re working but you have to work differently if something isn’t flowing. The concept of blocked (there’s no such thing) it’s a part of the process. Walking away is “productive. It’s a different way of working, a natural part of the process.”

Talk about a reframe of the word productive. Simply taking stock and re-defining the word productivity had the possibility to completely wash away those waves of frustration.

All of this goes far beyond how we re-define productivity though.

Questions I’ve been considering,

  • What else do we allow to be defined for us and then allow our lives to be ruled by it?

  • What words do we identify with that become our self fulfilling prophecy?

  • How do we use words to label how we relate to others, to put them in boxes and assume the meaning we have assigned them is the truth.

  • How often do we take the time to define what we mean, to thoughtfully and carefully evaluate the words we are telling ourselves and communicating to others?

Ocean says,

“Language is always changing. It has the power to cast new meaning.” “So what happens when we alter our language? Where will we grow towards?

Just an example of just how much words can differ between people, reflect on the American constitution for a moment and the line, “All men are created equal.” How long did it take for us to cast a new meaning to this one? How long did it and IS IT still taking us to get to a meaning we can grow towards?

Yes indeed. Words matter.

Words matter, especially the one’s we tell ourselves.

What meaning is being casted into our lives, programmed into our brains as our inner narrator pieces the story of our daily lives together? Is it not this very same narrator that creates the lens through which we see the world, and ourselves.

Anyone else feel like their mind is like a never ending audible book, and there is no conclusion? Sometimes I forget that I am the one in charge of how the story is going, carelessly leaving it up to anyone, any thought that wants to take over the job.

I’m not saying I’m going to start over analyzing every word that comes out of my mouth and monitoring every thought I think. This would probably very quickly lead me down the path of my own demise. However, I believe we often forget just how much our choice of words matter and how easily it is to slip into a reactive and automated manner of using them.

One of my favorite books of all time and a book that has probably become my general handbook to life, The 4 agreements. WISDOM FOR DAYS I TELL YOU! The very first agreement,

“Be impeccable with your word.” Don Miguel knew.

Are you going to take my word for it?

God I hope not. I hope you read this and it becomes a question that you get curious about. I hope you feel called to explore how the architecture of the words you’re using daily impacts your thoughts, feelings, and actions, one that over time seeps into your being as it is mine and perhaps pushes you to re-evaluate the lens through which you see things.

Whether we pause for an extra breath, before saying that thing to our family member, before making that commitment at work that doesn’t feel quite right, more carefully choosing the words we use in our marketing, or simply waking our curiosity to the words we are telling ourselves throughout the day, from my wise, elegant, radiant neighbor, your words matter.

In any moment we have the power to choose, to cast new meaning to our lives, to how we see ourselves and the world around us.

“We often tell our students, ‘The future’s in your hands.’ But I think the future is actually in your mouth. You have to articulate the world you want to live in first.”

-Ocean Vuong

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