Underwater view of a coral with twisting lines like a brain

Sitting in a coffee shop, in wintry pre-dawn light, my friend Nik and I were discussing the idea of positivity. Despite being a popular self-help trend for decades, we decided positivity wasn’t the point. Language was. The language we use shapes our reality.

Ten feet away, the only other customer in the coffee shop walked over to the counter and said, “I better get another cup. It’s gonna be a long day.”

Nik’s eyes lit up. “Did you hear that? He just set the course for his whole day!” We immediately wondered what would have happened if he’d said, “It’s gonna be a great day!” or “I’m really excited for today!” Instead, he’d anchored himself on the idea of long and not enough energy and needing caffeine just to get by.


A Language Theory

In the early 1930s, two linguists proposed a theory about language and its effects on our perception of reality. Called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (or Whorfianism) ((or linguistic relativism)), the theory posits:

The language a person is born into shapes the way that person thinks, acts, and perceives the world around them.

Now, the distinction between this theory and what Nik and I were talking about is this: Whorfianism considers the spoken or written language of a society (English, Hindi, Dalek, etc.). Nik and I were considering the actual words a person uses. And I think that’s where Whorfianism breaks down — they were looking from a linguist’s perspective rather than from a general human perspective.


Train Your Brain

Dr. Joe Dispenza is an educator and researcher focused on the mind-body connection, and he often explains how our brains and bodies interact with our thoughts and the world around us. He estimates that about 90% of the thoughts we think every day are the same thoughts as the day before.

We have trained ourselves into neural pathways so familiar that our brains can tune out and our bodies can simply perform the functions we’ve taught them to do: daily routines, emotional reactions, beliefs and perceptions. We call this automatic reaction our personality.

Dr. Dispenza said in a recent Instagram video: If you want to change your personal reality, you have to change the way you think. Positivity alone won’t work because we’ve trained our bodies into these automatic reactions. We have to go deeper than positivity and change the thoughts we think.

Thoughts are words. Thoughts are conscious labels and assessments of the world around us, of our internal reactions to the world, of our wishes and hopes. And while thoughts can be subject to the natural language you were born into, thoughts can transcend language through the addition of pictures, sounds, smells, physical experiences — visualization and what Dr. Dispenza calls mental rehearsal.


Cause & Effect

Follow me on a little bit of a rabbit trail:

The words we use to describe our experiences have the power to create or change those experiences. Think about the man in the coffee shop and the framing he could have used for how his day would go.

One-third of our lives revolves around work. Even outside the actual office, we are thinking and ruminating on the work we do. So maybe it’s more like half our lives.

The words we use to talk and think about work affect the way we perceive that work.

Now what if our work is for other people? I’m in product and software development. I make things for others to use. Nurses, architects, farmers, cashiers, professors… almost all the work we do is for other people.

Imagine we spend half our day talking and thinking about our work that actually goes out into the world for another person to experience. And imagine we’re fairly conscious of this flow, so we talk a lot about the people who will interact with our work.

How much more vital are the words we use about those people?


Blaze New Trails

In my company, we talk a lot about “revolutionizing the industry” — the idea of leading out, of setting the highest standards for tools and services our clients use.

If I call the people interacting with my software “users,” how does that shape the way I think of them? What if I called them “partners” or “superheroes” or “champions” or “customers”? How would a shift in language also shift the central intentions of what I’m building? When I build for “users,” it is impersonal, quantitative, scientific. “Partners” brings me closer to the real people on the other side.

But what would happen if I shifted my language to be more specific, more clear, more futuristic? What would happen if each of us rewrote the habituated pathways in our brains a tiny bit every day?

What happens when my language reflects not my present state but the vision of what could be that I’m picturing in my head?

What if the revolution is as simple as changing our words?