Reporting for this story took a different turn from the beginning.
Usually when I reach out to experts I get enthusiastic replies. But that was not the case when I emailed Professor Bernard Roth, academic director and cofounder of Stanford University’s d.school. He said he would “not help” me on a story I wanted to write about some excellent achievement habits he has refined and taught for several decades, which he’s recently collected in a book called The Achievement Habit.
Roth wasn’t being rude or difficult, however. He was making a point to illustrate one of the principles he talks about in his book: how swapping simple words and phrases we are used to saying multiple times a day can reprogram the way we think about and view perceived obstacles that stand in the way of personal success.
“I am prepared to assist (NOT HELP) you in any way I can,” Roth wrote to me.
Roth might seem like an unlikely person to write a book about personal growth and the way language choices affect it. After all, he’s not a psychologist, nor a linguist. His background is in mechanical engineering and design. Yet after attending an Esalen Institute retreat with other Stanford faculty in the mid-1960s, Roth became fascinated with human potential movement therapies. He soon applied his engineering and design principles to them to create his own content and formats of the therapy that better fit classroom and professional training situations.
“Over the years I kept slowly modifying the exercises and creating new versions based on what worked best with my students and workshop participants,” Roth says. “The book presents the material that has stood the test of time over several generations.”
One of his most prominent tips is word swapping. “Unfortunately, everyday speech is rife with disempowering language,” Roth says. “Even more harmful is how we use reasons to let ourselves maintain dysfunctional behaviors. The use of reasons to hide excuses makes positive behavioral changes very unlikely.”
The good news, Roth has found, is that by swapping simple words and phrases for others we can quickly—and permanently—produce positive behavioral changes. “People see the benefits immediately,” says Roth. “We do an exercise in class and almost everybody glimpses how defective their habitual speech patterns are. Then they use what they have learned for a week outside of class. Almost everybody comes back with amazing stories of how much better their lives have become.”
Here are five of the top words and phrases Roth recommends we swap out to get past the mental hurdles our everyday vocabulary choices put in our way.
“But” is probably the most limiting word in our vocabulary, Roth says in his book. “We often use ‘but’ in place of ‘and’,” writes Roth. “This substitution is so common that it sounds correct. Unfortunately it often has the effect of changing a neutral statement into a negative one.”
Roth gives the example of someone who is afraid of flying and has just gotten an amazing internship on the other side of the country. When deciding if they can take the internship they’ll examine the situation by saying, “I want this internship, but I’m afraid of flying.”
Roth says that their phrasing doesn’t represent the reality of the situation. The person both wants the internship and is also afraid of flying. The two aren’t connected. However, by mentally phrasing the situation by connecting the two truths with a “but,” the person is tricking themselves into believing that their amazing opportunity is a in fact a negative situation. The resulting conflict blocks them from moving forwards. That’s easy to change, however: Simply swap “but” for “and”.
“The use of ‘but’ closes off the conversation space, while ‘and’ opens it up,” Roth writes. “When you open up the dialogue with ‘and I’m afraid of flying,’ your brain gets to consider how it can deal with both parts of the sentence. Maybe you’ll see a therapist about it. Maybe you’ll practice meditation.” No matter what, you’ll almost certainly find a way to take the internship.
The next phrase to eliminate as much as possible on Roth’s list is “has/have to.” Like “but,” it is a phrase that sets up conflict in our minds. “Has/have to” also makes us believe that a situation has been forced upon us instead of willingly chosen by us. This is almost always a fallacy.
Needing to complete work is one of the most common situations in which we say we “have to” do something. As an example, Roth writes about an engineering student who isn’t happy he needs to take a certain math course to complete his degree. By saying to himself that he “has to” take it, he sets the situation up as a burden in his mind. It’s true that he may not enjoy that particular course, but Roth says that by simply swapping out “has/have to” with “want to,” his mind will more readily drop his dread of the course, which will make it seem like less of a burden, and indeed, more of something to look forward to, because it brings him one step closer to becoming what he wants to be: an engineer.
“This exercise is very effective in getting people to realize that what they do in their lives—even the things they find unpleasant—is in fact what they have chosen,” Roth writes.
Another no-no word for Roth is “can’t.” He says that when we say we “can’t” do something, that is almost always not actually the case. An example of this is someone who says they “can’t swim.” Phrasing their ability–or lack thereof–to swim with a “can’t” enforces in their mind that it’s not possible for them.
This, of course, isn’t true. Every human being can learn to swim. By simply swapping “can’t” for “won’t,” the person realizes that their inability to currently swim is a choice on their part, not a physical impossibility.
“The simple change of ‘can’t’ to ‘won’t’ is often empowering,” Roth writes. “‘Can’t’ implies helplessness; ‘won’t’ signifies volition and choice.”
Another self-limiting phrase is “I’m afraid to.” “I’m afraid to” is about the most blocking phrase there is. It acknowledges the person’s fear instead of their desire. By saying to yourself, “I’m afraid to ask for a raise,” you set your mind up to consider what could go wrong if you do. Will the boss think I’m greedy? If I’m denied it, will it mean I’m not as good an employee as I think I am?
By simply phrasing your want as “I’d like to ask for a raise,” you are acknowledging your desire, and desire is usually associated with positive, pleasant thoughts. In this case, it’s what you could do with the extra income—take a vacation; do that kitchen renovation you’ve been wanting. Pleasant thoughts and the possibility of pleasant outcomes usually compel us to take action, and we can’t achieve our goals if we don’t take action.
When Roth emailed me to tell me he wouldn’t help me with this article, and instead would “assist” me, he was trying to empower me. The word “help” is often associated with “helplessness” in our minds. Helplessness implies someone is incapable of achieving something without someone else stepping in to do it for them.
In the case of writing this article, Roth was right to tell me he would assist me. He realized something that my mind did not, which is that I could almost certainly write the article without his involvement. After all, I had access to his book and techniques and could have summarized them in the article without his input. And even with his involvement, the article couldn’t be written and filed with my editor without me–I was still a necessary part of the equation.
The point is that when we use the word “help,” we set our minds up to think we are helpless. However, when we swap “help” with “assist,” we set ourselves up to see that we are an important and capable part of the solution.