Define your terms

John A. Toomey was my ancient history professor at Bard College.

He assigned a paper every week. Most of his students thought that was a lot, but as a writer, I didn’t mind, and as someone who was learning to think, it was invaluable.

One of the things he pounded into his students was this:

Define your terms

These days, we casually throw around a lot of big words – success, potential, credibility, integrity, authenticity, transformation, awesome – on and on. Many of these words have become so over-used that they’re almost meaningless. Others carry weighty cultural baggage that makes us nervous about using them or claiming them for ourselves.

Last month, a colleague said to me, “Language is philosophy.”

That’s huge, and so completely true. Her example involved the various ways that different cultures define “table.” She pointed out that someone in France will draw a different table than someone in the U.S. or someone in Denmark or someone in Japan. And these definitions of “table” impact how people in each of these cultures gather around that table, sit at the table, and use it in general.

And perhaps you thought I meant a table in a document or spreadsheet, rather than a physical table that we put things on top of and pull a chair up to.

Your definition of “table” impacts your experience.

That’s just one example of how the terms (language) we use shape our philosophy, and therefore also shape our experience of life and work.

If I believe that success means I have to work 80-hour weeks with no time for myself, I probably won’t want to be successful.

If I believe that authenticity means sharing all my deepest, most private feelings and experiences, then I’ll probably judge myself for being inauthentic.

If I believe that awesome means being perfect and sparkly every day, I’ll probably feel exhausted before I even get out of bed in the morning.

Language is philosophy. Define (or re-define) your terms, and you change your experience.

My definition of success includes sustainability and nourishment. This is something I can wholeheartedly say that I want.

My definition of authenticity includes honesty, vulnerability, and privacy. Now I can feel safe, even as I challenge myself to share more of who I am.

My definition of awesome is playfully passionate, engaged, and in the moment, and allows for the humanness of mistakes and my need for silence and stillness. There’s space here to be the best I can be in each moment, without driving myself to impossible standards of perfection.

Notice, by the way, that when you start defining your terms, you’ll probably need to define some of the language you use in your definitions. For instance, in my definition of success, I also need to define sustainability and nourishment.

Define your terms.

Make the words work for who you are and what you want – and see for yourself how this changes your experience.