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Sticks & Stones
I have had the chance to interview some very remarkable people over the past twenty-five years. In the process I have learned a great deal from them. Their lessons, combined with the fact that we all use about 30,000 words a day, led me to come up with the idea for this book. This project hits the point that if we are going to speak and write so many words each day, then let's find a way to make them count. In these pages are the lessons I've learn on that subject from some really interesting people. Best of all, each of us can use these formulas to make an impact! The chapter I am spotlighting deals with the way we talk to ourselves.
Talking to Yourself
A few years ago I was watching a high school girl’s basketball game in a small town in Texas. It was a very exciting contest, punctuated with parents cheering for the kids, coaching yelling out instructions, and the players trying to use their talents to score points on one end of the gym and stop their opponent on the other.
The point guard for Bynum Lady Bulldogs was a cute, small brunette named Brittany. The fifteen-year-old was doing her best to bring the ball up the floor against a suffocating full-court press. Moving to her right, Brittany tried to dribble up the sideline only to be confronted by a double team and have the ball hit against her knee and bounce out of bounds. As the whistle blew there was a moment of almost churchlike silence in the building. Then Brittany cried out, “Oh, Brittany!”
Brittany was obviously upset with her play. Her words, meant to be heard by no one other than herself, indicated that even more than the frustrated look on her face. As the game continued I noted that she continued to whisper words of encouragement and exclamations of frustration to herself for the remainder of the night. In fact, I found her one-sided conversation to be the most interesting part of the game.
Like Brittany, we all talk to ourselves. It is a part of our nature. Contrary to popular opinion, we aren't crazy just because we ask ourselves questions and then provide a few answers. Many of us may not voice our thoughts out loud, but I don’t know of anyone who does not internalize conversations. What we say to ourselves varies from day to day and situation to situation, but how we say it not only affects our choices in life, but how we relate to the rest of the world. If our own words label us as a loser, then we usually live down to that status.
I Think I Can!
One of the best-loved children's stories is a about a small locomotive trying to pull a big load up a mountain. While the memory of the actual story might have faded for many, the tiny engine’s words are probably still etched deeply in almost everyone’s mind. “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can!” Using that philosophy, the tiny locomotive steamed over the top of the mountain and then proudly told itself, “I knew I could!”
For many, though, the voice they hear on the inside more often than not says, “You can’t do that.” And if those are the words you hear each day, then you probably aren’t able to say much that is encouraging to anyone else either.
There is an old axiom that says you really can’t like others unless you like yourself. This can be expanded to include a very significant rule of fact; you really can’t say much to motivate others in a positive way if you are drowning in your doubts and negativity.
Picture It Happening
One of the reasons I enjoy watching kids plays basketball is that I played all through grade school and high school. In fact, I still like to get out on the court today. In addition, my father was truly an incredible coach who excelled at teaching fundamental skills. Several of his players went on to play at major colleges.
Dad taught each of us how to shoot free throws. He went into every nuance, including fingertip control, stance, and release. Yet even though he could teach the proper technique to every kid, certain individuals simply could not consistently hit free throws. The problem was not with their form;, it was in their heads. They always went up to the line convinced they were going to miss the shot. They could not latch onto my Dad’s best piece of advice, “Picture it going through the goal before you release the ball.” Instead the picture in their mind was of the ball clanking iron and falling off to the side. Thus, rather than an “I know I can make it” attitude, the words they said to themselves were “I’m going to miss it.”
So even when everything else is going right in your life, even when you have the skills, the experience, and the tools to accomplish something, if you are telling yourself “I am going to mess this up,” then you probably will. So the words you speak to yourself are probably the most important words of impact that you will ever say.
Breaking the Mold
Several weeks ago I read the story of Nola Ochs. In May she graduated with honors from Fort Hays State University in Hays, Kansas. As the history major received her degree everyone, including the governor of the state, stood and applauded. Her blue eyes glowing, the small woman grinned, took her diploma, and moved across the stage and back to her seat. The ever-modest Nola considered herself to be just another student and certainly didn’t want to steal the spotlight from any of her many friends in the class of 2007. Yet the fact that she was ninety-five years old did cast her in a much different light than her classmates.
As middle age begins to throw its arms around us, most people’s internal voice tells them to slow down and give up on their dreams. The voice inside their heads that once pushed them to try and change the world now screams out “you can’t do that now, you are simply too old.” This voice usually becomes louder as people hit their senior years. Rather than the old “I think I can” mentality, most people say, “I wish I could,” or even worse, “There is no way.”
Nola never allowed her mind to convince her body she couldn’t do anything she dreamed of doing. She had run a large family farm after her husband died. She had driven tractors, bailed hay, and taken crops to the market. She had raised livestock. All the while the voice inside her head kept saying, “You know you can do it.” When most members of her high school class were holding their reunions at the cemetery, Nola opted to take some courses at a local two-year community college and then at the age of ninety-four to move onto the campus at Fort Hays State and become a coed. She donned the colors of the Fort Hays State Tigers at the same time as her granddaughter. Yet even this did not sway her resolve.
Nola’s work ethic, self-discipline, and drive inspired her professors and other students, who were often seven decades her junior. As they got to know Nola, they were transformed through simply watching Nola’s own positive approach to life. The can-do spirit that she possessed pulled a lot of self-doubters to heights they never believed they could have achieved. Some who would told their teachers they wanted to skip classes or put off homework got out of bed and got to work because of the white-haired student who and energetically greeted each challenge with a big smile and an even bigger “can do” attitude.
One of the keys to Nola’s success was very simple; she liked herself. She felt she had value and worth. She was confident enough to walk into a situation where she would stand out, where most would expect her to fail or fall behind. Each day she got up believing she could handle whatever life threw at her. In fact she felt it was a joy to meet that challenge.
Her work ethic, the premium she put on learning, her quest to embrace fully every moment of her life, and her positive attitude made a huge impact on her fellow students. The kids who went to school with her saw firsthand there was nothing that can hold them back or stand in their way except their own attitudes. When they watched Nola gain her degree, they fully understood that with hard work and the right can-do spirit they too could realize the fullness of a life that had no boundaries.
For every Nola there are tens of thousands of people of all ages who simply believe they are too old, too short, too slow, too thin, too fat, or just too something to do anything. Hence they don’t even start to do what they really want to do. The voice inside their heads is what can be called the “can’t do” attitude. They are constantly explaining to themselves and others that what they wished for could never be realized because of something that is holding them back. The words they spoke to themselves were filled with excuses rather than challenges.
The words “I just can’t do it ” not only hold people back in their own lives, but the attitude is passed on to others. If someone close to you has this attitude, it can affect you as deeply as it does them. That “can’t do” voice becomes a dead weight that can pull down everyone in their sphere of influence.
A Change of Attitude Changes the Way You Speak to Yourself
In 1952, Dr. Norman Vincent Peale wrote a book that became one of the best-selling releases of its time. The Power of Positive Thinking addressed, in very straightforward language, why attitude was the most important factor in achieving personal happiness. Millions took Peale’s words and adopted his positive approach to living as a part of their lives.
Though he did not explain it in this fashion, Peale’s book was essentially about the way we talk to ourselves. If we are negative, if we spend our lives waiting for something bad to happen, then two things will transpire. We will either be confronted by something bad or we will die waiting to have something bad hit us. Neither of those options offers much comfort.
The Dangers of Our Negative Words
Howard Hughes was a genius, a maverick, and a dreamer. His successes in business, aviation, and media made him one of the world’s most powerful and wealthiest individuals. Yet though he was blessed with incredible riches and was admired by millions, Hughes’ own attitude doomed him to withdraw from the world.
For decades, hiding behind closed curtains and locked doors, Howard Hughes lived his life in fear, terrified that he was going to get sick and die. Sadly, his fear of death caused him to miss most of the joy of life. His own self-concept, the words he spoke to himself, drowned him in a sea of misery. His incredible wealth made his death that much more ironic. Yet though he may have taken it to the extreme, Hughes is just one of millions who tell themselves they have so much to fear that their own worries never allow them to fully enjoy a single moment of life.
A Solid Self-View Can Start a Revolution
A good self-concept is vital to making an impact with your words. If you have a positive approach to your own life, if you believe in your own potential, then others will notice and want to follow you. Even if you don’t realize it, you will be a leader.
Throughout the 1930s Hollywood produced scores of films that featured the underdog overcoming the odds and rising to the top. Nowhere was this more evident than in the musicals of the era. An understudy who believed in herself would be pushed into the lead part on opening night and prove her worth in front of a theater filled with skeptical patrons. The underlying theme of all of these films, be they musicals or movies about boxers, race horses, senators, or even John Doe, was that the lead actor or actress looked in the mirror and said, “I can do this!”
Hattie McDaniel was an incredibly talented woman who was born a century too early to fully be recognized by her peers. A gifted singer and performer, in the 1930s she turned to acting to pay the rent. With her large figure and expressive face, she was a regular character actress in many of the top films of the decade. Still, the African-American woman seemed doomed to be little more than a background player whose portrayals continued a negative stereotype of her race.
In 1939, Hollywood released what is still considered one of the finest films ever made. Taken from the best-selling novel, Gone with the Wind was four hours of drama, excitement, and history all set in the Old South. The cast assembled for the feature represented the “who’s who” of the industry. As the most-hyped film ever, this was a movie that every “A” list actor wanted to be in.
One of the featured parts of this Civil War era epic was written for a house slave everyone called Mammy. A lot of African-American women auditioned for the role, but the producer, David O. Selznick, immediately sensed that Hattie McDaniel was perfect for the part.
By playing Mammy, McDaniel would make more money in a few months than she had made in all her years of acting. However, it also placed her in the uncomfortable position of playing a slave at the same time African-Americans were beginning to fight to gain equal status. So before signing the contract, Hattie had a talk with herself, then a conversation with the producer. She explained to Selznick that she wanted to play Mammy with dignity, that she wanted this woman to be a three-dimensional character who might be a slave but who still had great strength. Her Mammy would have incredible influence wrapped in an independent spirit. Finally, she wanted the producer to know that she would not say a single line of dialogue that would disparage her race. The risk McDaniel took was huge--she was well aware Selznick could have chosen someone else--but instead he agreed to her terms. He understood her feelings, and her words drew him to make the changes to accommodate the woman’s strong values.
Over the course of the filming Hattie became one of the favorite members of the cast. The crew loved her, and at a time when raced divided everything, she was treated as an equal to even the great Clark Gable. She was anything but a token minority; with her attitude she had moved to being an equal on the set.
Hattie’s portrayal in Gone with the Wind reflected her own dynamic “can do” spirit and transformed Mammy from a background figure to one of the most important characterizations to ever grace a Hollywood film. Because of the way she spoke to herself and the strength that gave her, when she won an Oscar for her performance, McDaniel make a huge statement for her race as well. The black woman with the “can do” attitude paved the way for all the African-American talent that followed in her footsteps.
It’s Not That Hard to Cheer Yourself On
Where do you start to change the way you speak to yourself? How do you find the positive words that will lift you up rather than put you down? You can start by making a list.
1. First write down your talents. What do you do well? A good shopper doesn’t go to the store without a list, so start to feel good about yourself by putting your unique talents on paper.
2. What makes you happy? Make a list. This is vital because you won’t be positive if you hate the things you do.
3. List your accomplishments. Everyone has accomplished things. They may seem ordinary to you, but they are a part who you are. By writing them down you will start to understand what others see as your best traits.
4. Take a look at your strengths and be proud of them. If you emphasize those strengths, the mental images that hold you back will soon fade away, as will many doubts and fears. Remember you can have the skills to do a job, but until you tell yourself you “can do” it, you will probably fail anyway.
If you are a parent, remember the time your child took his or her initial unsteady steps or said his or her first words. You praised them, bragged on them, hugged them, and made them feel like they were the most special person in the whole world. They were so thrilled by this praise they tried to take another step or say even more words. Receiving praise was a vital part of their learning.
So when you accomplish something important in your life, even if it is small, you need to do the same thing for yourself. Tell yourself how proud you are of each positive thing you do.
I have known many people who have attempted to lose weight. Most of them would try every diet and start several different exercise programs. Many failed again and again because they went into the venture telling themselves they could not do it. Others who had positive attitudes going in but had their mindset on the big goal failed as well. Their mind was so focused on the big picture that when they accomplished their first very important steps they didn’t stop and praise themselves for losing those first few pounds. As the long-range goal seemed forever away, their “self-talk” transformed into negative comments about how they were moving too slowly and they gave up.
No child goes from taking a step to winning the Olympics in a week, and that holds true for adults as well. If Nola Ochs had not praised herself for each of her steps, she certainly would have never made it through her first community college class, much less now be a college graduate working on her master’s degree.
The Yardstick Is Your Own
Many people are negative because they measure themselves against others. If you have never run, you are not going to go out your first day and match the times or distances of your neighbor who has jogged for years. Your initial goal needs to be jogging just a few steps one day and then equaling it the next. That is enough to allow yourself to praise your own efforts.
I personally do not like exercise. To me it seems like work, and I dread it. Yet I find when I simply go into a jog with a positive attitude, wearing a smile on my face, then it becomes something I can enjoy. How do I accomplish that? I do it by thinking about my cousin who is suffering with MS and cannot even get out of her wheelchair. She would love to run, so when I realize I can run and consider what a blessing that is, I find I have more energy than I could have believed possible. With my attitude changed, the words I speak to myself are changed and the jog becomes much easier.
Being able to do anything constructive is a joy we overlook, and we need to tell ourselves that as we start each new task. By thinking of each day of life as a blessing, then the real joy of being positive begins to take over everything you do. And, with that feeling in your heart, the words coming out of your head that you speak to yourself, as well as those you speak to others, will be positive as well.
Proper Environment for Positive Outlooks
You have heard it all your life, but it is hard to stay positive about anything, including yourself, if you are surrounded by negative people and negative influences. If people are always putting you down, you are probably going to take some of those words to heart. Therefore once you do your inventory and find things that are worth celebrating in your own life, then you don’t need to be around those who revel in their own failures and unhappiness.
So step one in bringing a sense of value and self worth to your self-communication is to push yourself away from friends who are negative or self-destructive. There are people who just love to miserable. They complain about everything and then blame everyone else for their problems. They thrive in a world where they are surrounded by others with the same attitude. Even their own thoughts are often filled with hate. They simply want to lash out and put others down to give themselves value. That is anything but a positive environment, and no one who wants to make a meaningful impact in the world needs to stay in that situation.
Negative Thoughts Show
People who carry around trash in their heads, people who have low self-esteem, people who are convinced they have little value show that attitude in the way they look, walk, and talk.
I have a good friend who is just a normal-looking person. He would not be considered handsome, he is not an athlete, and he doesn’t have many outstanding talents. Yet he is a successful. Why? First, he understands what his strengths are and plays to them. Two, he looks in the mirror and likes who he sees. Three, he is always smiling. The wise man who discovered that happy people attract others discovered one of the keys to a successful life. And finally, no matter who is in a room, no matter their demographic group or social standing in the community, Jim walks in believing he belongs with them. Thus, when he comes into a room, everyone seems to notice, and because he is sincerely glad to be there, they are glad to see him.
A Daily Clean Up
I had a friend who once asked me this question: “Besides your family, who is the most important person in your life?”
I initially considered this a fishing expedition trying to land a compliment and said, “My best friend.” One look told me that was not the right answer.
I thought a bit more and rattled off the following, “My doctor? My pastor? My lawyer? My editor?” Each of my responses brought a smile and shake of the head. Finally, after going through another dozen guesses, I gave up and asked, “Then who?”
“The garbage man,” came the simple reply. It was then followed by this explanation. “Ace Collins, you are the most positive person I know. Nothing keeps you down for long. A blue funk for you lasts just a few minutes. You always find ways to keep on the sunny side. But if the garbage man quit coming to your house, think how it would affect you. As the smell began to surround you, as the trash piled up all over your yard, as the flies and other pests swarmed into your home, you would become more and more unsettled. Things you once ignored would become huge problems. You would start to feel ill, lash out with harsh words to your family and friends, and your positive attitude would become harder and harder to maintain. Eventually you would fall under the weight of the trash and grow very depressed. Therefore it is the garbage man who is the most important person in your life. He is the one who makes your world a positive one.”
I thought about that analogy for a while and then realized how all-inclusive it was. My friend was talking about the garbage on the outside of my world, but there is also the garbage people carry around inside their heads. Their homes may be spotless, but their minds are often filled with all the wrongs that have ever been done to them. They constantly think about every grudge. They remember every mistake they have made. They continually plot ways to get even with enemies and are forever trying to come to grips with the times they have embarrassed themselves.
A human mind can only carry around so much garbage before that trash starts spewing out in our attitudes toward others and ourselves. Therefore the best way to keep a positive attitude is to get rid of your daily trash before you go to sleep each night. The fact is you can’t help others until you clean out the trash inside yourself. In truth, it’s not that hard to do either.
1. When you speak to yourself, admit your mistakes and realize that everyone makes them.
2. Work on ridding yourself of the baggage that you see in yourself.
3. Do things that make you happy. You can’t change the past but you can learn from it and move on. Don’t let the past fester in your mind. Throw it away!
4. Catch yourself before you say something negative, and try to keep negative thoughts out of your head. Even if you have to make a sign and put it on your wall, embrace and remember the “I think I can” attitude.
5. Hold onto principles that you can be proud of and make them a part of your dealings with others. I used to yell at officials at ballgames. Then I realized not only how stupid I looked, but how I affected me. I grew angry, I was unhappy, and I sure wasn’t someone I would want to hang around with. When I saw that picture of myself, I realized I needed to change.
6. Seek hobbies that bring you joy and that you can share with others. I fix up old classic cars and drive them because I love the way that seeing these ancient vehicles makes others honk, wave, and smile. So find something that you like that brings positive emotions to others as well.
7. Realize that not everyone will like you or understand you. Will Rogers said he never met a man he didn’t like. Will was a positive, upbeat man who considered each day of life such a sweet blessing that he probably did find something to like in everyone. But by the same token a lot of folks are jealous of his happiness and success. So if someone wrongs you, pray for them but don’t lose sleep over the fact they don’t care for or understand you.
8. Like my friend Jim, look on the sunny side, and you will find a lot of people will be drawn to you. You will also discover that when you talk to yourself, even when you mess up, your words will be understanding, uplifting, and positive.
9. Finally, and probably most importantly, be yourself. Nola Ochs didn’t worry about being out of place on a college campus, and because of her attitude, she fit in just as well as the other students who were seventy years her junior. In the segregated era, Hattie McDaniel didn’t run from her skin color, but used it to elevate others by standing proudly at the top of her profession, thus paving the way for a new generation to be given better opportunities. Nola and Hattie liked themselves enough to thrive in worlds few like them would have dared enter. That is the key for each of us. If you are being who you are supposed to be, then you will be happy.
On average each of is using more than 30,000 words each day. Some are written, some are spoken to those around us, and many are spoken to ourselves. Before we can use any of our words to lift anyone else up, we have to use them to elevate our own attitudes. We must have a “can do” attitude before we can do anything for ourselves or anyone else. So remember: the first person you need to impact with your own words is yourself.
This book was given to every pastor who attended the National Pastor's Conference in San Diego in February.
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