How To Remake The World By Changing Your Language

Describing the world accurately ends catastrophe.

Erik Brown
Dec 14, 2019 · 7 min read

People are often interested in the words others use. They’re sensitive to certain terms, rightly or wrongly. Many will hyper-focus on another person’s vocabulary or the ways things are said. It can lead to endless conflict and aggravation.

In the end, these battles will only change the world so much. If you really want to change the world as you see it, focus on your language. Change your own word selection and don’t worry as much about others.

Language can be a reflection of the world around you. It’ll give an idea of how you see everything. However, language can also create the world around you. How you describe something will cause it to take on those qualities.

The words you use to describe something will color it like a paintbrush. In the end your picture can be an accurate representation of what is, or a work of Pablo Picasso.

[“Nature Morte Au Compotier” — Pablo Picasso 1914–15 [Public Domain]

The ancient stoics figured this out over a thousand years ago. One of their guiding principles was adjusting the way you speak. They realized that your description of an event can shape it to a certain point of view.

For example, losing your job may be a tremendous blow. You may use language such as this to describe the event:

  • “The worst day in my life.”

In the end, these are not accurate descriptions of the event. A more accurate description of the event would be, “I lost my job and now I’ll have to get a new one.”

The language in the bullet list above colors the event. You make it into the worst day of your life. You make it an occurrence where can’t ever find another quality job. You turn the termination into “them” screwing you. You make it an event you’ll never recover from.

In the end, an event happens and the only thing you have control of is the way you think about it.

Stoicism Is Ancient Cognitive Behavior Therapy

Portrait of Epictetus — 1715 By Sonnem Via Wikipedia Creative Commons

“It’s not things that upset us, but our judgements about things.”

— Epictetus, this quote is often used in Cognitive Behavior Therapy

In his book, How To Think Like A Roman Emperor, Donald Robertson examines the ancient Roman and Greek stoics. He also examines the similarities between exercises practiced by the stoics and those used by modern Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT).

According to the American Psychological Association’s description of CBT:

CBT treatment usually involves efforts to change thinking patterns. These strategies might include:

Learning to recognize one’s distortions in thinking that are creating problems, and then to reevaluate them in light of reality.

Robertson describes the CBT concept of catastrophizing. In this action, people exaggerate hardship. By overblowing this particular event, it actually becomes a catastrophe. The thought process and language used cause more pain.

Robertson looks at the stoic philosopher-king Marcus Aurelius. As a young man, the Roman emperor Hadrian took a liking to Marcus. Hadrian would set Marcus in place as an eventual successor.

As a Roman destined for leadership, Marcus would be introduced to the best teachers in the empire. He would be expected to learn rhetoric from great sophists of the day. The sophists were great orators who used emotion and flowery speech to impress others and show off their intelligence.

Marcus would soon learn the sophists spoke much of virtue, but rarely practiced it. Their speeches and arguments were meant more to impress. However, they didn’t live the concepts they described.

Hadrian was a practitioner of sophistry. Marcus would watch as the emperor used his speech to argue with other thinkers. Hadrian concentrated on showing off his intelligence but never pursued wisdom for his personal improvement. The emperor would often focus on embarrassing and belittling others to show off his skill — banishing some he came into conflict with.

Marcus would eventually abandon the teachers of rhetoric to focus on stoicism. The stoic teachers would regularly tell Marcus to change his speech. He would be told to speak as accurately as possible and to avoid hyperbole for it colors the way you see events. Also, be as concise as possible.

The sophists’ use of hyperbole would function as the catastrophizing CBT describes. Marcus realized by speaking as plainly and accurately as possible, your impressions wouldn’t distort an actual event.

Events are events and your impressions of events were an entirely different thing. Robertson describes stoicism as anti-rhetoric. By removing your impressions from events, you get a more accurate impression of the world around you. It also removes excess pain your own language creates — it stops you from catastrophizing the event.

Examples Of This Practice In The World

You may think to yourself, “That’s easy for a guy in a toga from a thousand years ago to say these things, but today’s world is different.” I’d completely disagree with you there. There are modern examples today of people changing their language to change the world around them.

Jocko Willink — U.S. Navy [Public domain]

Former Navy SEAL commander Jocko Willink has a common expression he uses when he encounters misfortune. That magic word he uses to make the misfortune more manageable is “good”. How can a misfortune be good? Let’s see how Jocko uses this magic word.

  • The mission we’ve been training for a month got delayed— (Jocko) “Good, now we can train more.”

Jocko would use one word to turn a bad situation on its head. By starting his response with “good”, a situation turned from misfortune to opportunity. By using one word regularly, he transformed from a victim of fate to an opportunist.

Nick Vujicic — Attitude Is Altitude Website

Now, that’s easy for a badass Navy SEAL to do, but what about a regular person? There’s an answer to this as well. Nick Vujicic was born without arms and legs. He’d enter a world where he couldn’t walk, lift things, or take care of his own basic needs.

These would be incredible obstacles that would depress him when he was a child. As a teenager, he decided to change the language he used for the world around him. Instead of focusing on all the things he couldn’t do, he’d focus on things he could do.

He found that even without arms and legs he could ride a surfboard. In fact, with his low center of gravity, he could do things on a surfboard no one else could. He was able to do a type of 360-degree movement unique to the surfing world. It got him on the cover of Surfer Magazine.

Nick also found he could still speak. He’d use his ability to speak to spread a message of hope. Today he’s a widely known inspirational speaker that’s traveled the world. He made this change just by altering his language from “what can’t I do,” to “what can I do”.

The two individuals above are very different characters. But, both were able to change their language as a way of dealing with the problems around them. They didn’t catastrophize and didn’t let their emotions color the reality of their situations in a negative way.

For Jocko, it would be leading his SEAL task force through the deadliest fighting in Iraq in the battle of Ramadi. “Good” would be uttered many times as things often descended into chaos. Seeing misfortune as an opportunity would be an incredible benefit in this environment.

For Nick, it would be dealing with a life filled with “can’t”. He escaped this prison by focusing his language on the word “can”. This would lead him to a meaningful life giving people hope. It’s hard to be helpless when you’re helping others.

Remake The World With Your Language

The world is a difficult place and your life will be filled with hardship. If you want to make your world better, concentrate on your own speech instead of what others say. Focus on the language you use to describe the world.

The Stoics knew this over a thousand years ago. Nick Vujicic, Jocko Willink, and the practitioners of CBT know it today. The words you use everyday color what surrounds you. If you study your common language and work to adjust it, your world will improve.

Describe events that occur daily as accurately as possible. Review your language to see if your catastrophizing events. The ancient path of the stoics works today if you follow in their footsteps.

Thank you for reading my ramblings. If you’ve enjoyed what you’ve read, please share.

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Erik Brown

Written by

Work out fanatic, martial artist, student, MBA, and connoisseur of useless information.

Live Your Life On Purpose

Get Purpose. Get Perspective. Get Passion.

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