I once coached a runner, let’s call him Kevin, who used the word “easy” more often than any athlete other I’ve ever worked with. It was like some kind of verbal tic. He deployed the adjective at least once in almost every post-run comment he left on his online training calendar. Granted, “easy” has some relevance in this context; it would have been a lot weirder if Kevin had instead dropped “procrustian” almost daily. Still, the frequency with which he trotted out this particular five-letter sequence far exceeded the bounds of normal. But whereas the tic jumped out at me almost immediately, it took me a while to suss out the underlying psychology.
The crucial clue lay in how Kevin tended to use the word. There was a boastful, crowing quality to it. “I averaged under 7:30 per mile and it was so EASY.” That sort of thing. Over the years I’ve encountered many athletes, almost all of them male, who can’t fully accept where they stand on the athletic pecking order. Simply put, they aren’t as good at their sport as they would like to be and it bothers the hell out of them. To cope with their disappointment, these men redefine “winning” in ways that make them feel less like losers. One example is what I call sour grapes syndrome, which I touch upon in The Comeback Quotient and is addressed more fully here. Another is Kevin’s pathological overuse of the word “easy.” The conclusion I came to was that he’d sort of convinced himself that his marathon PR was actually better than your faster marathon PR because his felt easy whereas yours felt hard.
In the hope of helping Kevin gain greater self-awareness, I challenged him one day to go for one month without using the word “easy” in any of his post-run comments. To incentivize his acceptance of this challenge, I promised Kevin I would discount his next month’s coaching fee by 25 percent if he fulfilled it. There was just one other rule: He couldn’t ask why the forbidden word was forbidden. My goal here was to stimulate inner reflection on his compulsive use thereof.
To be honest, I wasn’t sanguine about Kevin’s prospects for becoming conscious of the self-deceptive nature of his use of “easy,” but I didn’t want to just leave the matter alone, either. I view it as a big part of my job as a coach to cultivate mental fitness in my athletes, and as any reader of The Comeback Quotient knows, I define mental fitness as the willingness and ability to face reality. I truly believed that Kevin would become a better and more satisfied runner if he fully accepted that he wasn’t the world’s greatest runner. But he just wasn’t up to it. Although he earned his discount, I saw no evidence that any self-reflection occurred during the monthlong challenge.
Ah, well: You win some, you lose some. That being the case, I haven’t abandoned the practice of tabooing specific words for the sake of influencing the psychology that animates their use. In fact, I’m practicing the method on myself right now with the words “hope” and “wish.” Two factors led me to banish (at least temporarily) these words from my vocabulary. One is the chronic health condition I developed a few months back after recovering from COVID-19. The other is the publication of the aforementioned book, which has inspired me to walk the talk of facing reality with even greater vigilance than before.
“Hope” and “wish” are all about refusing to accept reality. To say “I wish I didn’t have a chronic health condition that causes me to feel bad all day every day without a moment’s respite” is to say “I refuse to try to make the best of the reality that I have a chronic health condition that causes me to feel bad all day every day without a moment’s respite.” And to say “I hope I recover eventually” is to say “I choose to make my happiness dependent on things that are largely outside of my control.” I won’t go so far as to say that “hope” and “wish” are inherently bad, but it is undeniably true that their use is consistent with a helpless, dependent mindset and that pausing the use of these words forces one to be more self-aware concerning this mindset, and with self-awareness comes the potential for change.
One thing you’d quickly realize if you chose to forbid these same words is that you use them constantly—and so does everyone else. It’s been a few weeks now since I stopped using them, and in the early days especially I had to catch myself repeatedly when I was on the verge of deploying one or the other of them. For example, I nearly wrote, “I hope your stomach settles down for tomorrow’s long run” in a message to an athlete, but I caught myself just in time and instead went with, “It will be nice if your stomach settles down for tomorrow’s long run.” The difference between these two sentences is more than semantic. They represent radically different mindsets.
A few weeks back I lay supine on a CAT scan table with sensors all over my chest and an IV needle jabbed into the crook of my left elbow, injecting dye into my circulatory system. Within a few seconds I would be slid into the machine, whose job was to assess the health of my heart. My last thought before this happened was a jolting realization that I felt completely unafraid and even indifferent as to whether the report I received from the cardiologist afterward was good or bad. I would be okay regardless (and the the report was in fact bad) because I had learned to define “okay” in a way that does not depend on having things my way. I’m not trying to impress you. I’m just making the point that it is fully possible for a normal person to become nondependent on things they can’t control. Nor am I suggesting that my tabooing of “wish” and “hope” was entirely responsible for this evolution in me, but it certainly has accelerated the process.
What do you say? Want to give it a try? I say go for it! See if you can make it for one entire month without using “wish” and “hope” in your speech or writing. You won’t regret it.
Ah, “regret.” Now there’s another one . . .
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