With the power to change everything from the tone of a day, to the trajectory of a life—words matter. They can build us up or tear us down, unite or divide us, inspire or discourage us, nurture or stunt us. Highlighting this truth are the recent conversations I had with 12 incredible humans about the transformational difference that words have made for them. Their powerful stories not only demonstrate how a simple string of well-chosen words can make a tremendous impact on others—but also inspire us to actively reach for language that lifts those around us.
Following a particularly difficult period of his childhood, futures trader, Mahendra Jain struggled with self-confidence. As a seven-year-old attending grammar school in Bangalore, India, he recalls, “When you attend school in India—you’re openly ranked from the smartest to the lowest performing in your class, with the smartest student ranked number one. There were 32 students in my second grade class, and I remember praying that I would be ranked 31. Anything but dead last.” Around that same time, a distant relative that came to visit, read his palm, and shared the message with him in Hindi, ‘you have two brains’—which loosely translated to his having double the cognitive capacity of normal little boys. “I didn’t fully believe it, but it opened up an entirely different plane of possibility for me.” That year, Mahendra was ranked number five in his 32-student class—and years later would find himself in the Ivy League—earning a master’s degree from Cornell University.
“No one has it figured out.”
“Years ago, when I was lost and struggling with addiction, I remember sitting in a restaurant with my father complaining about the lack of direction in my life,” shares licensed social worker, Katy Samuelson. “He said to me, ‘Kiddo, take a minute and take a long look around this room right now.’ I did, and asked him what his point was. ‘Do you think any of these people have this figured out?’ His point was that at the end of the day, we are always works in progress, and it’s never about the end game but the journey. In that moment, it gave me a sense of calm and comfort, knowing my dad didn’t expect me to be perfect, and loves me the way I am. Always trying to make him proud of me, those words helped me set my expectations, be open to my own progress, and know it’s going to be a journey. While a lot has changed since then, to this day—every time I compare myself to others, or think about where I should be, and by what age, I remember those powerful words and it brings a calm.”
“The worst thing anyone could say to you is no.”
CEO, Darrin Utynek will tell you the words that have served him best came from what many would call ‘a toss away line’ from his dad. “A long time ago, when I was in high school, my father told me, ‘The worst thing anyone could say to you is no, and you’ll probably learn something from that.’ My father was a professional negotiator. He explained to me that ‘no’ really means ‘no thank you,’ and if you’re willing to follow up with the question, ‘okay, could you tell me why, and what I can work on to get to yes?’—you learn a lot. As corny as that may sound, I’ve really built my career on being unafraid of the word ‘no’ – delving into a variety of different roles largely because I was never afraid to raise my hand and throw my name in the ring for a job I wasn’t qualified for. Plenty of people over the years have told me ‘no’—and that was just a good learning exercise for me.”
“You’re going to be successful.”
Entrepreneur Mason Eddy was forever changed by seven words spoken to him at the age of 12. “I was on a hunter safety course with my father, where they have you navigate various obstacles while properly carrying, and safely using a small caliber rifle. An older gentlemen sitting in a chair on the course said to me, ‘Your shoe is untied.’ I handed my gun to my father, tied my shoe, and—citing the many young men who did nothing with his feedback—the stranger said, ‘this boy is going to be successful.’ In my 33 years on the planet, I’ve yet to do something that hasn’t required an immense amount of coaching and feedback. Everything I’ve created has been through others seeing the potential in me, being honest with me, and my willingness to be coached. Among those creations are two successfully scaled businesses, an amazing marriage, and a personal community that supports and perpetuates my ongoing growth.”
“I’m proud of you.”
Police officer Gracie Carmichael can attest to the power of words making all the difference in her profession. “Given the nature of my work, I don’t often see people at their best. They’re in crisis, not always clear minded, talking a-mile-a-minute, calling people names, and sometimes violent.” Exposed to every imaginable variety of emergency call over a period of more than15 years on the job, those cumulative exchanges can take their toll. “Whether from a colleague, a member of the community, or someone from my own family – hearing someone say ‘I’m proud of you,’ is a game changer. It’s that little lift that comes with the realization that others see the challenges you’re facing, the commitment you’re exhibiting, and the obstacles you’re overcoming. Those words have given me the fuel to do better each day, and strive to be great at what I do.”
“Change your view to change your perspective.”
After being laid-off from a high paying position several years ago, training and development professional Michele Kotte found herself working as an administrative assistant to a pastor of a large suburban church outside Chicago. I found myself very far removed from what I had envisioned for myself, and skeptical about the path laid out before me. The pastor encouraged me to embrace my uncertainty to overcome it. He said, “Get out of your head and change up how your world is working. Change of place, plus change of pace, equals change of perspective.’ Two days later, I got in the car, took a spontaneous trip to Louisville, and had an amazing New Years’ Eve connecting with perfect strangers. Right after that trip, I got out of my comfort zone and reached out to a former colleague I admired—which led to a job referral, and a new professional opportunity. I couldn’t have written a better outcome. To this day, whenever I need to overcome something and get into action, I draw on those words like a mantra.
“It’s okay to fail.”
“In India, as an undergrad student majoring in English, you have to sit for two different board exams,” recalls institutional researcher Sibali Dutta. “Studying for 18 hours a day and barely sleeping to prepare for the first exam, I was on the verge of a breakdown. I told my father I didn’t feel prepared enough, and was not going to sit for the exam that year. He said to me, ‘What are you worried about? Failure? First of all, you’re not going to fail. But you know what? It’s okay to fail. You’ve never tasted failure—but you can learn a lot from it.’ Sharing examples of failure’s benefits from his own medical school exams, he encouraged me, ‘Don’t compare, just give it a shot.’ His words changed the situation for me entirely. Unafraid, I sat for both exams, and not only passed—but earned excellent scores on both. I’ve used those words again and again throughout my life, every time I find myself afraid to fail.”
On the surface, some words might look less like a supportive pep talk than they do a personal slight. Illuminating personal blind spots and hard realities—those words can actually provide the greatest insights, and powerfully fuel our determination to be better.
“You’re a perfectionist.”
Detailing the processing exercise she regularly engages in with her boss, mental health worker, Maria Gomez recalls, “Last year, after processing all of my own thoughts out loud—from the challenges I experienced working with my clients, to the things I observed during the week—my supervisor told me I’m a perfectionist. I instantly said, ‘Nope! That’s not me. I make all these mistakes.’ But what I quickly came to realize was the fact I put a lot of pressure on myself to make sure I do it all, and I do it all right. I don’t do it all perfectly—but I’m always trying to make it perfect. Her words were really impactful. The more I thought about that label, the more I appreciated it. Being hyperconscious of that tendency, I really try to let a lot of stuff go now. It has made me see that I don’t need to do the work of an entire team. If I don’t finish, I can go home and sleep, and the world won’t end. None of us are perfect, and everything we do won’t be perfect. It’s going to be messy. The best you can do is the best you can do. You can’t do more.”
“Change your name.”
For founder and CEO Pattie Kushner, the most impactful words to her were shared shortly after her college graduation. “Crafting my resume for the job market I hoped to enter, I approached a very successful leader for career advice. That leader was my dad. He told me he was confident I could get any job I wanted, but the first step was getting in the door.” With a nod to the reality that a male candidate’s chances for being selected from a stack of resumes far outweighed a woman’s—her father’s advice was honest. ‘Shorten your name on your resume from Pattie to Pat.’ “While his advice opened my eyes to the reality of inequity ahead, I didn’t take it. A more gender-neutral name on my resume may have protected me from being marginalized on paper, but I had to be who I was. His words emboldened me to overcome that bias, inspired a deep sense of authenticity and transparency in me, and made me work harder and smarter throughout my career.”
In the professional arena, words have a direct correlation to company morale, the personal meaning we find in our work, and the longevity of a busines itself.
“I recognize you—completely.”
For CEO Diane Primo, the most meaningful sentiments are those communicated beyond words alone. “While it’s something to be recognized professionally in words—it’s vitally important to also be recognized in action.” A powerful advocate throughout her career for those being shortchanged, she explains that gender and race microaggressions often occur passively and silently, and highlights their nuance. “Being praised for the quality of your work, only to have someone else present your ideas is a clear message that speaks volumes. Everyone wants to be recognized for the quality of work they do. The reality is that people who are diverse tend to get less of it. Full-on, undiluted recognition gives individuals a genuine sense of belonging. Beyond a private compliment - it pairs verbal praise with professional promotion, and public celebration. The most powerful words are backed by opportunities to advance and excel in proportion to one’s contributions.”
“Empathy and fairness for all.”
“In tumultuous times, employment stability is what employees fear most,” says operations director, Katja Bukowski. Charged with leading the operational logistics behind two waves of pandemic-fueled Fortune 100 corporate layoffs, she explains the detrimental impact of word choice. “When your business reality completely challenges the employment stability your employees seek, the only message capable of salvaging it is a clear plan with empathy and fairness at its core. But communicating that message is a sweeping proposition. In a compassionate tone of voice—it pairs clear explanations of the decision-making process with a comprehensive business plan; Individual departure announcements with the importance of the work done by those who remain; Acknowledgement of job stability concerns and stress with how we’re going to get the work done; Not just saying you’re receptive to concerns—but directly addressing the questions. At every level, word choice is everything.
“Let’s use this company”
For serial entrepreneur Travis Johnson, a pivotal moment in his company’s history was marked by the words of a perfect stranger. Nearly two years in to leading his food delivery venture—he hadn’t yet raised seed funding, had traction but wasn’t growing the business as fast as we wanted, and questioned whether his path to a successful acquisition was going to work. “As an entrepreneur, you need to be able to have a mix of confidence in your concept and mute the naysayers—but also listen to the market and understand when something isn’t working, so you can pivot. We were pivoting.” In that moment of his company’s evolution, he found himself in a public space and overheard someone at the next table he didn’t know say, ‘Let’s use foodjunky.com for lunch.’ “It was huge boost for me, because it told me something there was working. Being on the steady receiving end of why your idea won’t work, and the myriad of reasons that people won’t invest—the words I overheard helped me successfully broker a delivery.com acquisition.”
At a time in our history that our words have never mattered more—may the next conversation you have be one that leaves those around you lifted, inspired, and better for having engaged.