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Screw Sticks and Stones: Why Words Have the Greatest Power of All

Written by on 23 Sep 2014

Words.

Are.

Powerful.

Say what you want about sticks and stones or rubber and glue. I think words are some of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal. Hands down.

They have the power to ignite inspiration or fuel discouragement.

They have the power to spread love or disseminate hate.

They have the power to create joy or propagate fear.

Each of those powers is a post topic in and of itself.

But today, we’re going to talk about what I believe to be the greatest of the word powers—the power to teach.

Or it’s opposite—to confuse.

I’m sure you’ve come across this phenomenon at some point in your life—either in the positive or the negative.

A time when someone got through to you with just the right words…

A time when someone just couldn’t get their point across…

One of the first times I remember this happening to me was in 6th grade math class. We were working on graphs for the first time, and our teacher was trying to explain the concept of a “plane.” She started by telling us that the X and Y axes were, in fact, planes. They weren’t lines, as though they appeared (and were clearly represented) on the page. Instead, they were “planes” on which you could plot points, and they continued indefinitely in either direction.

I’m sorry, what?!

So, like, when the paper stops, the X just keeps going?!

And then, when you’re putting something on the Y axis, it’s actually going somewhere else in space, and not really on the paper?!

What happens when you turn the graph sideways?!

Mind. Blown.

I was, of course, that annoying kid that asked ALL of these questions, much to the chagrin of my teacher. But don’t worry about me too much. The other kids loved it, because we didn’t actually have to do any work that day.

Thus, my popularity peaked in middle school.

But that’s a story for another day.

Anyway, my point here is that she just did not have the right words for my 6th grade mind to grasp this nebulous concept. It wasn’t until years later that a geometry teacher got me to understand planes by using the concept of quadrants—basically giving me context. Planes broke up the world of graphs into four quadrants and were used to plot coordinates in those quadrants.

Same story, different context.

Same student, different words.

They were both teaching, but each had a different amount of efficacy.

What I’ve realized over the years, is that my educational matches (or mismatches) had very little to do with my teachers and their teaching abilities, and very much to do with me and my willingness to learn.

All that mattered was what the words meant to me at the time.

It was my interpretation that made all the difference.

Case in point: this past weekend’s trip to the lake.

First, let me give you some background.

Going to the lake always presents a great internal struggle for me.

On the one hand, I love the concept of going to the lake. I love being outside. I love lying on a boat, drinking an adult beverage, relaxing. I love my newly acquired beach-bod. I love the sun. I love comradery. I love indulging in the idea that a productive day could be had doing absolutely nothing.

In these ways, lake trips were seemingly made for me.

On the other hand, I hate the reality of going to the lake. I suck at all things water. I’m a terrible swimmer. I have a not-so-slight fear that the next “Piranha” or “Jaws” will be made about me. I have a negligible amount of patience for being dirty or smelly, both of which are products of lake water.

And, up until this weekend, I also could not master water sports.

Especially, my arch nemesis—wakeboarding.

No matter who I was with, what type of board I was using, or what brand of boat I was behind, I just never could crack the simple act of getting up on a wakeboard.

And, as you can imagine, this frustrated me to no end.

I mean, come on! All the pieces are there!

I was a catcher in softball, but my thunder thighs couldn’t stand up. I can do a million chaturangas in yoga, but just couldn’t pull myself up out of the water. I even have a rather uncanny sense of balance (not to be mistaken for gracefulness, mind you), but down I went, every single time.

And what’s even more frustrating than not getting up on a wakeboard is enduring a face-full of lake water every 3 minutes.

Bleh.

So there I was, somehow persuaded to put down my mimosa and give wakeboarding the old college try.

Again.

And I was absolutely convinced that it was going to end as it always had.

Board: 1. Tracy: 0.

But this time, probably out of sheer exasperation with the fact that I was, once again, going to make a fool of myself, I asked if anyone had any tips.

Couldn’t hurt, right?

Now, I had been used to boating with people who had no patience for these sorts of questions (yes, those are the wrong people to boat with, but more to come on that in a later post). So, I was surprised when the driver of the boat came over to help me.

He said, “Listen. It’s as simple as this. Don’t pull yourself up. Let the boat pull you up.”

What I thought was:

Ok, genius. If it were that simple, I would have done it by now.

But what I said was:

“Really? Explain.”

He said, “Ya, of course. I’ll show you.”

So, he had me line the board up against the platform of the boat, and hold on to the rope as if I were waiting in the water. Then, he pulled on the rope, mimicking the tug of the boat. Instinctively, I pulled back against the rope and pushed down with my feet, and awkwardly fell back into the water.

“All wrong,” he said. “Literally, just let me pull you up.”

So, we tried it again. I lined up the board and held on to the rope. He pulled the rope again, and I just went with it. Up I popped onto the platform with absolutely no effort on my part.

“See what I mean?” he asked.

What I thought was:

A-buhhhhhh

What I said was:

“I think so…”

So I drifted back in the water, and perennial disbeliever that I am, I assumed the “ready-to-fall-on-my-face” position.

And fall I did.

Twice.

After the second time, when he drove the boat around to toss me the rope, he looked at me and said,

“Seriously. Don’t try so hard. Just let the boat pull you up. Do less.”

What I thought was:

Ugh, fine. Nothing else works.

What I said was:

“Alright…”

And that third time (thankfully, because who doesn’t love charming poeticism), I finally let those words sink in, let the boat pull me up, and stood up.

The funniest part is that I was so sure I’d never actually stand up, that I hadn’t even thought to ask what to do once you’re standing. Thus, I immediately fell back down.

But that’s neither here nor there.

The point here is that once I heard the right words (“do less”), internalized them the right way (saying “ok”), and put them into the right practice (actually doing it!), I accomplished something that I had previously thought was beyond my grasp.

I finally stood up on a wakeboard.

He taught.

I learned.

Success!

Now, this is obviously a very small win when it comes to the bigger picture of life. But I hope it illustrates the point I’m trying to make and serves it’s literary purpose.

All that mattered was hearing the right words, interpreting them the right way, and putting them into action.

Same story, different context.

Same student, different words.

Think about your life and the lessons you’ve already learned along the way. Think about all the times when you knew something was true, but needed to hear the right words to allow it to sink in.

Or the opposite!

Think about something you’re battling right now-- something that life is trying to teach you, but hasn't gotten through just yet. It could be as trivial as math or wakeboarding, or as deep as friendships or romance.

Are you open to hearing the words you need to hear?

Are you ready to let them sink in?

Are you willing to put them into practice?

Remember-- you won't be able to think your way through this. You'll have to hear these words from someone else or somewhere else. So just listen, be open, be ready, and be willing.

You'll hear exactly what you need to hear, when you need to hear it.

Words.

Are.

Powerful.

But first, you must allow them to be.

**********

What lesson did you need “the right words” to learn? Who uttered those life-changing words?

Did this story resonate with you? Or did it make you think of a story of your own? Share your story or your reaction in the comments below.

I believe that stories unite us. These stories can be traced back to one person, conversation, or observation that provided a turning point in our lives. I’d love to hear if you believe this, too.

If you do believe this, then share it with your friends! Because sharing stories an instinctual, powerful way to touch the hearts of others and change the world around us.


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