JOHN is walking down a large city street and notices someone sitting on the steps that lead up to an apartment complex. John looks over and stares for a brief moment at the person sitting there. "Good-for -nothing!" he mumbles to himself and quickly walks on.
Does it matter what words he chooses to describe the person on the steps?
Yes, it makes a huge difference. He could also have used any of these words: fool, thug, conman, thief, vagrant, victim, saint, social worker or friend.
Each word or "name", which progressively has a more sympathetic and positive meaning, defines how John would react and relate to that person. The terms may not reflect reality but rather John's interpretation of it.
Limited by a label
Let me give a personal example of this. When I was in the first grade, I took an IQ test. The test results said that I was borderline mentally retarded. Nowadays, the more politically correct term "intellectually disabled" would have been used, but you get my point.
As a child, I could have easily believed the results and accepted that as a way to identify myself. All it would have taken were a few more mistakes, problems or failures, and the name would have stuck.
Instead, my father (who had a PhD in education) learnt of this test and went to see the teacher. He told the teacher that the test was incorrect and that his son was not "mentally retarded". I heard him say this and decided that he was right. Then, I forgot about that test.
Later, I discovered I had a love for learning and finally went on to get my PhD too. My father had given me another way to identify myself. It is amazing to think that a label given to me at such an young age could have had an effect on me had my father not intervened.
Just as a name or term can impact how you see yourself, the language you use will help define how you see the world. It is important to know that you can change the words you use to describe the world and learn new things.
Imagine a person standing at the edge of a desert. All he sees is sand around him. It seems to go on for miles. He has no idea of the creative power of language or his own capacity to rename the world. He accepts it as sand and decides to live with it as he imagines there is nothing he can do about it.
Now, picture another person standing on the edge of this desert. He looks at it and thinks, "What can I do with this resource?" He plays with the sand and experiments with it. He uses fire on it and realises that if treated in the right way, it becomes glass. A new way to relate to sand is found, and a new industry is born.
Many years later, another man sees the sand and experiments with it in a different way and creates silicon. A new use for sand is found and our relationship with the world changes yet again. For the last two individuals, by not limiting themselves to one description of sand or its use, they gave it a new name and a new use.
New products are born because somebody looked at the world in a new way and gave himself the freedom to question accepted truths.
The key is to understand the potential within yourselves and through your language to look at the world in different ways. Language forms your perception, and your perception defines how you see the world.
This is not to say that there is no reality or that you can create your own reality. But it is important to know that much of what you encounter is your perception of reality. The very process of using language is the process of discovering what something is and how you can relate to it in new ways.
As a manager or a leader, you can rename a "problem" as an "opportunity". This simple shift will change the focus on how you deal with it. The language you use is just as much a part of the problem as the problem itself.
Seeing the world in a new way is the ongoing work of leadership. Checking assumptions, exposing biases, renaming the world you are dealing with and teaching others to do the same are ways to stay on the cutting edge and be successful in the long term.