They say a picture is worth a thousand words.
Well, sometimes, so are a few words.
Just three or four words, in the right combination, have changed my life.
This is the power of a phrase.
I use phrases as cues. They help me focus, make decisions, and brave challenges; they help me shift back when I fall off-track. They give me clarity. They help me know myself.
They’re not mantras, exactly; I’m not standing in front of the mirror repeating them to myself, Stuart Smalley style. But they are powerful mental shortcuts.
A way of summarizing life’s weird, knotted bundles of knowledge into something I can remember.
I recently learned there’s a word for these phrases: heuristics. (Thanks, Christina Wodtke.)
I thought I’d share some of my favourite heuristics here. You’ll notice that many of these phrases have come from people who’ve inspired me.
As Christina pointed out in her article, “The dark secret of heuristics is they are hard to learn without living the lesson.”
Yet, other people’s words and phrases – sometimes uttered casually without expectation – have sometimes powerfully impacted my life. I’ve given them my own meaning. Feel free to make them your own.
10 phrases that have changed my life for the better
1. Use your light to help others find theirs.
Some years ago I sent a thank you card to my friend and coach Steph at IronLion Training, thanking her for her support during a difficult time. I told her it was as though she had seen a light in me, and helped me chase it.
In response, she sent me this:
The caption read: "Use your light to help others find theirs”.
That phrase — "Use your light to help others find theirs” — stuck with me. I thought, that’s exactly what I want to do.
And so I now use it as a guiding principle for my work. Every time I need to make a major decision, or I find myself getting off course, I come back to this guiding principle.
How can I use my light (my uniqueness and what I do best) to help others find theirs?
2. Love your life and it will love you back.
But it has been one of these most powerful, positive phrases in my life.
To me, “love your life” does not mean “enjoy” or “like” your life, the way we typically mean it. To me, in this context, love is a verb. An action.
It means actively investing in my own life – giving it my energy, enthusiasm and heart. It means doing the things that I believe in, that I value, and yes, that make me happy.
The more I lean into life, get really awake and actively participate in my own life, the better my life gets. Meaning, satisfaction, joy, possibility. The more I put into it, the more I get back.
This is the antidote to trudging, or slinking, or waiting the days away. It asks me to be active, and find the joy, each day. Don’t wait; put the love into my life today.
3. I fucking did that.
This is one of my favourites.
My dear friend Katelyn told me this one. She imagined a tombstone that read, “I fucking did that.”
What an exciting phrase. To embrace life’s big, crazy, fun, weird, unpredictable, shaking-with-fear challenges in earnest of collecting that badge of courage: I fucking did that.
This mantra pushes me out of my comfort zone, and encourages me to embrace the opportunities in my own life.
When you’re not sure you can do something, think about what it would be like to look back and say, “I fucking did that”.
I also use this to take a step back and look at what I’m up to. If I’ve got a list of “I fucking did that” going, I’m probably on a good track.
4. make your own.
This one came from my friend Krista Scott-Dixon, some years back when I was thinking of quitting my job.
I told Krista what I wanted in my work and she said, “I don’t want to sound like a jerk, but if that’s what you want, you’re probably going to have to make your own [work]."
In other words, no one was going to hand me the dream job/company/work I was after. I would have to create it myself.
I think these were the words I was waiting to hear; it was permission and a nudge to go ahead and make the thing I always wanted to see. Shortly after I quit my job and started my business, Storytelling with Heart.
This phrase is more than a job-quitting call-to-action though: it’s a reminder of the need to create the things we want to see in the world.
Want something to exist? Go make it.
Create, create, create. And do it your way. This is how this heuristic continues to inspire me and push me forward into action.
5. it doesn't have to be perfect.
I saw this graffito on the sidewalk a little while ago, and while it's so simple, it's made a difference to me.
I took a picture of it and it's now something I refer back to every day, disturbing my natural inner push towards being better, better, better. (My own tendencies are towards ‘not enough-ness’, though I have found some journaling strategies that help.)
When things feel too big, or scary, I remember: it doesn't have to be perfect.
The pressure valve releases. Everything becomes a bit more OK. I can proceed.
6. Why don’t you just tell me the movie you want to see?
Remember that Seinfeld episode where Kramer takes over Movie-fone?
For some reason he pretends to be the automated service delivering movie listings.
Here’s how the dialogue goes:
KRAMER: Hello and welcome to Movie phone. If you know the name of the
movie you'd like to see, press one.
GEORGE: Come on. Come on.
KRAMER: Using your touch-tone keypad, please enter the first three
letters of the movie title, now.
(George presses 3 keys)
KRAMER: You've selected ... Agent Zero? If that's correct, press one.
KRAMER: Ah, you've selected ... Brown-Eyed Girl? If this is correct,
(George looks baffled)
KRAMER: Why don't you just tell me the name of the movie you've
This is really silly but also genius, if you think about it.
How many times in our life are we speaking circuitously, robotically, trying to follow formulas or scripts rather than just asking for what we want or saying what we really mean?
I use this all the time in writing. Whenever I feel stuck I just repeat this heuristic to myself and write exactly what I want to say. I don’t try to make it smart or special or worry about what other people will think. I just write the damn thing.
This is an excellent phrase to use if you find yourself having trouble writing, and if your writing tends to fall on the over-complicated or flowery side of the spectrum.
It’s also useful for life.
Instead of overthinking, just be honest about what you want. Tell yourself what you actually mean. Tell others what you actually mean.
Clear out all the clutter. And tell the truth.
7. go find something else to do.
A friend in high school came from a very nice, very politically correct, intelligent family. The kind of family who played co-operative board games instead of competitive sports.
When their family dog came around to beg for treats or interfere with dinner, he wasn’t told “no,” or “go away,” or “bad dog.” (That wouldn’t be very nice.)
He was politely told to “go find something else to do.”
I now use this refrain to stop myself from wasting mental energy, and getting caught up in old, negative thought patterns.
What does a waste of mental energy look like?
For me, it might mean worrying about what someone thinks of me, or trying to chase approval. It might mean mentally criticizing or judging others, or feeling hurt about something someone did or didn’t do. It might mean ruminating on old memories or experiences. I might also mean getting too caught up in my own fantasy land.
Basically, it’s the kind of thinking that pulls me back into old stories that don’t do me, or anyone else, any good.
Instead, I turn my attention to the next thing, the positive thing.
I go find something else to do.
8. It’s the best thing I’ve ever tasted.
This gem comes from my friend Kerry, who’s been saying it for years.
She doesn’t save it for literal uses: every time something is good, you can bet Kerry is announcing, “it’s the best thing I’ve ever tasted!”
I love this. It reminds me to enjoy life and not hold back.
Another version of this might be Cheryl Strayed’s phrase, “Recklessly Optimistic.”
Life won’t punish you for enjoying it. Be hyperbolic with your appreciation and enjoyment. Dig into the good stuff – celebrate it, love it, laugh at it.
(Kerry also says, “I love my life” whenever anything good happens. And when something good happens to you, she says, “I love your life!” I love this phrase too. It shows joy and appreciation of other people’s happiness and good fortune, and reminds me to do the same, while enjoying what I have.)
9. Get over it.
I’m sure our parents all said this to each of us over the years, but what echoes in my mind is actually a bit from the TV series Friends. (Apparently 90s TV had a big effect on me.)
It goes like this:
PHOEBE: Wait, (grabs guy) you know what, I got a little story. When I was in Junior High School I went through this period where I thought I was a witch. And there was this guidance counselor who said something to me, that I think will help you a lot. He said okay, 'you're not a witch you're just an average student.' See what I'm saying?
GUY: Not really.
PHOEBE: Um, well, get over it.
So, I mean you, you just seem to be a really nice guy, you know. Don't be so hard on yourself okay.
I think this advice, while seeming trite and even a bit rude, is actually fantastic sometimes.
Because sometimes, we just need to put the thing down and move the hell on.
I use this one on myself when my mind gets ruminating over something or worrying about something useless.
It’s a way of gently mocking myself and putting things in perspective. This gives me a break and allows me to simply move on to something else.
So really, it’s kind of nice.
(That doesn’t give you permission to say mean things of course, to yourself or anyone else. If you’re using this one, make sure it comes from a good place. And stays in your own head.)
10. Live the story you want to tell.
I didn’t make this up and I can’t attribute it to anyone, but it really is a great set of words to live by.
For one thing, it reminds us that life is ours to make. We craft where we go. There are many things we can’t control, but the story is ours to imagine.
In particular, it reminds me to think ahead: how will I want to look back on this? If I am telling the story years from now, what will I want to say I did? How will I want to say I participated? What will I want to say about my life, my adventures. What would I want my memoir to include?
This may seem like a big exercise in self-reflection but it’s also just a small nudge to instruct my actions.
Do I speak up in this moment or stay silent?
Do I take the trip or wait another year?
Do I give something a shot or hold back?
Do I let myself be defeated or do I get back up?
We are constantly writing our own stories.
We might as well make them good.