“A powerful agent is the right word. Whenever we come upon one of those intensely right words . . . the resulting effect is physical as well as spiritual, and electrically prompt.” MARK TWAIN

Words . . . They’ve been used to make us laugh and cry. They can wound or heal. They offer us hope or devastation. With words we can make our noblest intentions felt and our deepest desires known. Throughout human history, our greatest leaders and thinkers have used the power of words to transform our emotions, to enlist us in their causes, and to shape the course of destiny. Words can not only create emotions, they create actions. And from our actions flow the results of our lives. When Patrick Henry stood before his fellow delegates and proclaimed, “I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!,” his words ignited a firestorm that un- leashed our forefathers’ unbridled commitment to extinguish the tyranny that had suppressed them for so long. The privileged heritage that you and I share, the choices that we have today because we live in this nation, were created by men who chose words that would shape the actions of generations to come:

When in the Course of human Events, it becomes necessary for one People to dissolve the Political Bands which have connected them with another . . .

This simple Declaration of Independence, this assemblage of words, became the vessel of change for a nation. Certainly, the impact of words is not limited to the United States of 201 America. During World War II, when the very survival of Great Britain was in question, one man’s words helped to mobilize the will of the English people. It was once said that Winston Churchill had the unique ability to send the English language into battle. His famous call to all Britons to make this their “finest hour” resulted in courage beyond compare, and crushed Hitler’s delusion about the invincibility of his war machine.

Most beliefs are formed by words—and they can be changed by words as well. Our nation’s view of racial equality was certainly shaped by actions, but those actions were inspired by impassioned words. Who can forget the moving invocation of Martin Luther King, jr., as he shared his vision, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live the true meaning of its creed . . .”?

Many of us are well aware of the powerful pan that words have played in our history, of the power that great speakers have to move us, but few of us are aware of our own power to use these same words to move ourselves emotionally, to challenge, embolden, and strengthen our spirits, to move ourselves to action, to seek greater richness from this gift we call life.

An effective selection of words to describe the experience of our lives can heighten our most empowering emotions. A poor selection of words can devastate us just as surely and just as swiftly. Most of us make unconscious choices in the words that we use; we sleepwalk our way through the maze of possibilities available to us. Realize now the power that your words command if you simply choose them wisely.

What a gift these simple symbols are! We transform these unique shapes we call letters (or sounds, in the case of the spoken word) into a unique and rich tapestry of human experience. They provide us with a vehicle for expressing and sharing our experience with others; however, most of us don’t realize that the words you habitually choose also affect how you communicate with yourself and therefore what you experience.

Words can injure our egos or inflame our hearts—we can instantly change any emotional experience simply by choosing new words to describe to ourselves what we’re feeling. If, however, we tail to master words, and if we allow their selection to be determined strictly by unconscious habit, we may be denigrating our entire experience of life. If you describe a magnificent experience as being “pretty good,” the rich texture of it will be smoothed and made flat by your limited use of vocabulary. People with an impoverished vocabulary live an impoverished emotional life; people with rich vocabularies have a multihued palette of colors with which to paint their experience, not only for others, but for themselves as well.

Most people are not challenged, though, by the size of the vocabulary they consciously understand, but rather by the words they choose to use. Many times, we use words as “short cuts,” but often these short cuts shortchange us emotionally. To consciously control our lives, we need to consciously evaluate and improve our consistent vocabulary to make sure that it is pulling us in the direction we desire instead of that which we wish to avoid. You and I must realize that the English language is filled with words that, in addition to their literal meanings, convey distinct emotional intensity. For example, if you develop a habit of saying you “hate” things—you “hate” your hair; you “hate” your job; you “hate” having to do something—do you think this raises the intensity of your negative emotional states more than if you were to use a phrase like “I prefer something else”?

Using emotionally charged words can magically transform your own state or someone else’s. Think of the word “chivalry.” Does it conjure up different images and have more emotional impact than words like “politeness” or “gentlemanliness”? I know that for me it does. Chivalry makes me think of a valiant knight seated on a white steed, championing his raven-haired damsel; it conveys nobility of spirit, a great round table about which are seated men of honor, the whole Arthurian ethic—in short, the wonder of Camelot. Or how do the words “impeccable” or “integrity” compare to “well done” and “honesty”? The words “pursuit of excellence” certainly create more intensity than “trying to make things better.”

For years I’ve observed firsthand the power of changing just one key word in communicating with someone, and noted how it instantly changes the way people feel—and often the way they subsequently behaved. After working with hundreds of thousands of people, I can tell you something I know beyond a shadow of a doubt, something that at first glance may be hard to believe: Simply by changing your habitual vocabulary—the words you consistently use to describe the emotions of your life—you can instantaneously change how you think, how you feel, and how you live.

The experience that first triggered this insight for me occurred several years ago in a business meeting. I was with two men, one who used to be the CEO of one of my companies and the other a mutual associate and good friend, and in the midst of the meeting we received some rather upsetting news. Someone with whom we were negotiating was obviously “trying to take unfair advantage,” had violated the integrity of our understanding, and it appeared he had the upper hand. To say the least, this angered and upset me, but although I was caught up in the situation, I couldn’t help but notice how differently the two people sitting next to me responded to the same information.

My CEO was out of control with rage and fury while my associate was hardly moved by the situation. How could all three of us hear of these actions that should have impacted us all equally (we all had the same stake in the negotiation), yet respond in such radically different ways? Quite honestly, the intensity of my CEO’s response to the situation seemed even to me to be disproportionate to what had occurred. He kept talking about how “furious” and “enraged” he was, as his face turned beet-red and the veins in his forehead and neck visibly protruded. He clearly linked acting on his rage with either eliminating pain or gaining pleasure. When I asked him what being enraged meant to him, why he was allowing himself to be so intense about this, through clenched teeth he said, “If you’re in a rage, you get stronger, and when you’re strong, you can make things happen—you can turn anything around!” He regarded the emotion of rage as a resource for getting himself out of the experience of pain and into the pleasure of feeling like he was in control of the business.

I then turned to the next question in my mind: Why was my friend responding to the situation with almost no emotion at all? I said to him, “You don’t seem to be upset by this. Aren’t you angry?” And my CEO said, “Doesn’t it make you FURIOUS?” My friend simply said, “No, it’s not worth being upset over.” As he said this, I realized that in the several years 1 had known him, I’d never seen him become very upset about anything. I asked him what being upset meant to him, and he responded, “If you get upset, then you lose control.” “Interesting,” I thought. “What happens if you lose control?” He said matter-of-factly, “Then the other guy wins.”

I couldn’t have asked for a greater contrast: one person clearly linked the pleasure of taking control to becoming angry, while the other linked the pain of losing control to the same emotion. Their behavior obviously reflected their beliefs. I began to examine my own feelings. What did I believe about this? For years I’ve believed that I can handle anything it I’m angry, but 1 also believe that I don’t have to be angry to do so. I can be equally effective in a peak state of happiness. As a result, I don’t avoid anger—I use it if I get in that state—nor do I pursue it, since I can access my strength without being “furious.” What really interested me was the difference in the words that we all used to describe this experience. I had used the words “angry” and “upset,” my CEO had used the words “furious” and “enraged,” and my friend had said that he was “a bit annoyed” by the experience. I couldn’t believe it! Annoyed?

I turned to him and said, “That’s all you feel, just a little bit annoyed? You must get really angry or upset some of the time.” He said, “Not really. It takes a lot to make that happen, and it almost never occurs.” I asked him, “Do you remember the time the IRS took a quarter- of a million dollars of your money, and it was their mistake? Didn’t it take you two and a half years to get the money back? Didn’t that make you unbelievably angry?” My CEO chimed in, “Didn’t that make you LIVID?” He said, “No, it didn’t upset me. Maybe I was a little bit peeved.” Peeved? I thought this was the stupidest word I’d ever heard! I would never have used a word like that to describe my emotional intensity. How could this wealthy and successful businessman go around using a word like “peeved” and still keep a straight face? The answer is, he didn’t keep a straight face! He seemed almost to enjoy talking about things that would have driven me crazy.

I began to wonder, “If I did use that word to describe my emotions, how would I begin to feel? Would I find myself smiling where I used to be stressed? Hmmm,” I thought, “maybe this warrants some looking into.” For days after that, I continued to be intrigued by the idea of using my friend’s language patterns and seeing what it would do to my emotional intensity. What might happen if, when I was feeling really angry, I could turn to somebody and say, “This really peeves me!”? Just the thought of it made me laugh—it was so ridiculous. For fun, I decided to give it a shot. I got my first opportunity to use it after a long night flight when I arrived at my hotel. Because one of my staff had neglected to handle the check-in for me, I had the privilege of standing at the front desk for an extra fifteen or twenty minutes, physically exhausted and at my emotional threshold. The clerk dragged himself to the check-in counter and began to hunt-and-peck my name into the computer at a pace that would make a snail impatient. I felt “a bit of anger” welling up inside of me, so I turned to the clerk and said, “You know, I know this isn’t your fault, but right now I’m exhausted and I need to get to my room quickly because the longer I stand here the more I fear I will become a bit PEEVED.”

The clerk glanced up at me with a somewhat perplexed look, and then broke a smile. I smiled back; my pattern was broken. The emotional volcano that had been building up inside of me instantly cooled, and then two things happened. I actually enjoyed visiting for a few moments with the clerk, and he sped up. Could just putting a new label on my sensations be enough to break my pattern and truly change my experience? Could it really be that easy? What a concept! Over the next week, I tried my new word over and over again. In each case, I found that saying it had the impact of immediately lowering my emotional intensity. Sometimes it made me laugh, but at the very minimum it stopped the momentum of being upset from rushing me into a state of anger. Within two weeks, I didn’t even have to work on using the word: it became habitual. It became my first choice in describing my emotions, and I found myself no longer getting in these extremely angry states at all. I became more and more fascinated with this tool that I’d stumbled across. I realized that by changing my habitual vocabulary, I was transforming my experience; I was using what I would later call “Transformational Vocabulary.” Gradually, I began to experiment with other words, and I found that if I came up with words that were potent enough, I could instantly lower or increase my intensity about virtually anything.

How does this process really work? Think of it this way: imagine that your five senses funnel a series of sensations to your brain. You’re getting visual, auditory, kinesthetic, olfactory, and gustatory stimuli, and they are all translated by your sense organs into internal sensations. Then they must be organized into categories. But how do we know what these images, sounds, and other sensations mean? One of the most powerful ways that man has learned to quickly decide what sensations mean (is it pain or pleasure?) is to create labels for them, and these labels are what you and I know as “words.”

Here’s the challenge: all of your sensations are coming to you through this funnel, like liquid sensation poured through a thin spout into various molds called words. In our desire to make decisions quickly, rather than using all of the words available to us and finding the most appropriate and accurate description, we often force the experience into a disempowering mold. We form habitual favorites: molds that shape and transform our life experience. Unfortunately, most of us have not consciously evaluated the impact of the words we’ve grown accustomed to using. The problem occurs when we start consistently pouring any form of negative sensation into the word-mold of “furious” or “depressed” or “humiliated” or “insecure.” And this word may not accurately reflect the actual experience. The moment we place this mold around our experience, the label we put on it becomes our experience. What was “a bit challenging” becomes “devastating.”

For example, my CEO used “furious,” “livid,” and “enraged”; I called it “angry” or “upset”; and when it came to my friend, he poured66 his experience into the mold of “peeved” or “annoyed.” What’s interesting is that all of us, I discovered, use these same patterns of words to describe multitudes of frustrating experiences. You and I need to know that we can all have the same sensations, but the way in which we organize them—the mold or word we use for them—becomes our experience. I later found that by using my friend’s mold (the words “peeved” or “annoyed”) I instantly was able to change the intensity of my experience. It became something else. This is the essence of Transformational Vocabulary: the words that we attach to our experience become our experience. Thus, we must consciously choose the words we use to describe our emotional states, or suffer the penalty of creating greater pain than is truly warranted or appropriate.

Literally, words are used to re-present to us what our experience of life is. In that representation, they alter our perceptions and feelings.

Remember, if three people can have the same experience, yet one person feels rage, another feels anger, and the third feels annoyance, then obviously the sensations are being changed by each person’s translation.

Since words are our primary tool for interpretation or translation, the way we label our experience immediately changes the sensations produced in our nervous systems. You and I must realize that words do indeed create a biochemical effect.

If you doubt this, I’d like you to honestly consider whether or not there are words that, if someone were to use them, would immediately create an emotional reaction. If someone hurls a racial slur at you, how does that make you feel? Or if someone were to call you a four-letter word, for example, wouldn’t that change your state? There’s probably a big difference between someone calling you by the initials “S.O.B.” and having them articulate in graphic detail the phrase these letters stand for. Wouldn’t it produce a different level of tension in your body than if they were to call you an “angel”? Or a “genius”? Or a “dude”? We all link tremendous levels of pain to certain words. When I interviewed Dr. Leo Buscaglia, he shared with me the findings of a research study done at an eastern university in the late fifties. People were asked, “How would you define communism?” An astonishing number of the respondents were terrorized even by the question, but not many could actually define it—all they knew was that it was horrifying! One woman even went so far as to say, “Well, I don’t really know what that means, but there hadn’t better be any in Washington.” One man said that he knew everything he needed to know about Communists and that what you needed to do was kill them! But he couldn’t even explain what they were. There is no denying the power of labels to create sensations and emotions.

“Words form the thread on which we string our experiences.” ALDOUS HUXLEY

As I began to explore the power of vocabulary, I still found myself fighting the idea that something as simplistic as changing the words that we use could ever make such a radical difference in our life experience.

But when my study of language intensified, I came across some surprising facts that began to convince me that words absolutely do filter and transform experience. For instance, I found that, according to Compton’s Encyclopedia, English contains at least 500,000 words, and I’ve since read from other sources that the total may be closer to 750,000 words! English definitely has the largest number of words of any language on earth today, with German running a distant second, tallying roughly half the number.

What I found so fascinating was that, with the immense number of words we could possibly use, our habitual vocabulary is extremely limited. Various linguists have shared with me that the average person’s working vocabulary consists of only between 2,000 and 10,000 words. Conservatively estimating English to contain half a million words, that means we regularly use only ½ of 1 percent to 2 percent of the language!

What I found so fascinating was that, with the immense number of words we could possibly use, our habitual vocabulary is extremely limited. Various linguists have shared with me that the average person’s working vocabulary consists of only between 2,000 and 10,000 words. Conservatively estimating English to contain half a million words, that means we regularly use only ½ of 1 percent to 2 percent of the language!

As I described to you in Chapter 7, when participants at my Date With Destiny seminar make out their list of emotions that they feel in a week, the majority of them come up with only about a dozen. Why? It’s because we all tend to experience the same emotions again and again: certain people tend to be frustrated all of the time, or angry, or insecure, or frightened, or depressed. One of the reasons is that they constantly use these same words to describe their experience. If we were to analyze more critically the sensations we have in our bodies, and be more creative in our way of evaluating things, we might attach a new label to our experience and thereby change our emotional reality.

I remember reading years ago about a study conducted in a prison. Typically, it was found that when inmates experienced pain, one of the few ways they could communicate it was through physical action—their limited vocabulary limited their emotional range, channeling even the slightest feelings of discomfort into heightened levels of violent anger. What a contrast to someone like William F. Buckley, whose erudition and command of the language allow him to paint such a broad picture of emotions and thus represent within himself a variety of sensations! If we want to change our lives and shape our destiny, we need to consciously select the words we’re going to use, and we need to constantly strive to expand our level of choice.

To give you further perspective, the Bible uses 7,200 different words; the poet and essayist John Milton’s writing included 17,000; and it’s said that William Shakespeare used over 24,000 words in his varied works, 5,000 of them only once. In fact, he’s responsible for creating or coining many of the English words we commonly use today.

Linguists have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that culturally we’re shaped by our language. Doesn’t it make sense that the English language is so verb-oriented? After all, as a culture we’re very active and pride ourselves on our focus of taking action. The words we use consistently affect the way we evaluate, and therefore the way we think. By contrast, the Chinese culture places a high value on that which does not change, a fact reflected in the many dialects featuring a predominance of nouns rather than verbs. From their perspective, nouns represent things that will last, while verbs (as actions) will be here today and gone tomorrow.

Thus, it’s important to realize that words shape our beliefs and impact our actions. Words are the fabric from which all questions are cut. As we noted in the last chapter, by changing one word in a question, we can instantly change the answer we’ll get for the quality of our lives.

The more I pursued an understanding of the impact of words, the more impressed I became with their power to sway human emotion, not only within myself, but within others as well.

“Without knowing the force of words, it is impossible to know men.” CONFUCIUS

One day I began to realize that this idea, as simple as it was, was no fluke, that Transformational Vocabulary was a reality, and that by changing our habitual words, we could literally change the emotional patterns of our lives. Further, we could therefore mold the actions, directions, and ultimate destinies of our lives. One day I was sharing these distinctions with a longtime friend of mine. Bob Bays. As I did so, I could see him light up like a Christmas tree. He said, “Wow! I have another distinction to give you.” He began to relate an experience to me that he’d had recently. He, too, had been on the road keeping an intense schedule and meeting everyone else’s demands. When he finally came home, all he wanted to do was have some “space.” He has a home on the ocean in Malibu, but it’s a very small place, not designed to have house guests, much less three or tour.

When he arrived on his doorstep, he found that his wife had invited her brother to stay with them, and that his daughter, Kelly, who was supposed to visit for two weeks, had decided to stay for two months. To add insult to injury, someone had turned off the VCR that he’d preset for a football game he’d been looking forward to viewing for days! As you can imagine, he hit his own “emotional threshold,” and when he found out who had turned off his VCR—his daughter—he immediately unloaded on her, screaming all the four-letter words he could think of. This was the very first time in her life that he had even raised his voice to her, much less used language of that color. She immediately burst into tears. Witnessing this scene. Bob’s wife, Brandon, broke into peals of laughter. Since this was so unlike Bob’s normal behavior, she assumed this was an outrageous and massive pattern interrupt. In reality, he wished he had been doing a pattern interrupt. After the smoke began to clear, and she realized he was actually furious, she became concerned, so she gave him some very valuable feedback. She said, “Bob, you’re acting so strangely. You never act this way. You know, I noticed something else: you keep using a certain word that I’ve never heard you use before. Usually when you’re stressed, you say you’re overloaded, but lately I hear you talking all the time about how you’re overwhelmed. You never say that; Kelly uses that word, and when she does, she feels this same kind of rage and behaves very much like you just did.”

“Wow,” I began to think as Bob told me the story, “Is it possible that, by adopting someone else’s habitual vocabulary, you began to adopt their emotional patterns as well?” And isn’t this especially true if you’ve adopted not only their words, but also their volume, intensity, and tonality, too?

“In the beginning was the Word…”

I’m sure that one of the reasons we often become like the people we spend time with is that we do adopt some of their emotional patterns by adopting some of their habitual vocabulary. People who spend any amount of time with me soon find themselves using words like “passionate,” “outrageous,” and “spectacular” to describe their experiences. Can you imagine the difference that produces in their positive states as compared to someone who says they’re merely feeling “okay”? Can you imagine how using the word “passion” could cause you to peg your emotional scale? It’s a word that transforms, and because I consistently use it, my life has more emotional juice.

Transformational Vocabulary can allow us to intensify or diminish any emotional state, positive or negative. This means it gives us the power to take the most negative feelings in our lives and lower their intensity to the point where they no longer bother us, and take the most positive experiences and move them to even greater heights of pleasure and empowerment.

Later that day, as Bob and I were having lunch, we became immersed in a series of projects we were working on together. At one point, he turned to me and said, “Tony, I can’t believe that anyone in the world could ever be bored.” I agreed. “I know what you mean. Seems crazy, doesn’t it?” He said, “Yeah, boredom’s not even in my vocabulary.” Just as he said that, I asked, “What did you just say? Boredom is a word that’s not in your vocabulary… Do you remember what we were talking about earlier? It’s not in your vocabulary, and you don’t experience the feeling.

Hmmm. Is it possible that we don’t experience certain emotions because we don’t have a word to represent them?”


Earlier I said that the way we represent things in our minds determines how we feel about life. A related distinction is that if you don’t have a way of representing something, you can’t experience it. While it may be true that you can picture something without having a word for it, or you can represent it through sound or sensation, there’s no denying that being able to articulate something gives it added dimension and substance, and thus a sense of reality. Words are a basic tool for representing things to ourselves, and often if there’s no word, there’s no way to think about the experience. For example, some Native American languages have no word for “lie”—that concept is simply not a part of their language. Nor is it a part of their thinking or behavior. Without a word for it, the concept doesn’t seem to exist. In fact, the Tasaday tribe in the Philippines reportedly ^as no words for “dislike,” “hate” or “war”—what a thought!

Returning to my initial question, if Bob never feels bored, and he doesn’t have that word in his vocabulary, I had to ask further, “What’s a word that 1 never used to describe how I’m feeling?” The answer I came up with was “depression.” 1 may get frustrated, angry, curious, peeved, or overloaded, but I never get depressed. Why? Had it always been that way? No. Eight years ago, I’d been in a position where I felt depressed all the time. That depression drained every ounce of my will to change my life, and at the time it made me see my problems as permanent, pervasive, and personal.

Fortunately I got enough pain that I pulled myself out of that pit, and as a result I linked massive pain to depression. I began to believe that being depressed was the closest thing to being dead. Because my brain associated such massive pain to the very concept of depression, without my even realizing it, I had automatically banned it from my vocabulary so that there was no way to represent or even feel it. In one stroke I had purged my vocabulary of disempowering language and thus a feeling that can devastate even the stoutest of hearts. If an assemblage of words you’re using is creating states that disempower you, get rid of those words and replace them with those that empower you!

At this point you may be saying, “This is just semantics, isn’t it? What difference does it make to play with words?” The answer is that, if all you do is change the word, then the experience does not change. But if using the word causes you to break your own habitual emotional patterns, then everything changes. Effectively using Transformational Vocabulary—vocabulary that transforms our emotional experience—breaks unresourceful patterns, makes us smile, produces totally different feelings, changes our states, and allows us to ask more intelligent questions.

For instance, my wife and I are both passionate people who feel deeply about things. Early in our relationship, we would often get into what we used to call “pretty intense arguments.” But after discovering the power of the labels we put on our experience to alter that experience, we agreed to refer to these “conversations” as “spirited debates.” That changed our whole perception of it. A “spirited debate” has different rules than an argument, and it definitely has a different emotional intensity to it. In seven years, we’ve never returned to that habitual level of emotional intensity that we had previously associated with our “arguments.”

I also began to realize that I could soften emotional intensity even further by using modifiers; for example, by saying, “I’m just a bit peeved,” or “I’m feeing a tad out of sorts.” One of the things Becky will do now, if she starts to get a little frustrated, is to say, “I’m beginning to get a smidge cranky.” We both laugh because it breaks our pattern. Our new pattern is to make a joke of our disempowering feelings before they ever reach the point of our being upset—we’ve “killed the monster while it’s little.”

When I shared this Transformational Vocabulary technology with my good friend Ken Blanchard, he related to me examples of several words he uses to change his state. One is a word he adopted in Africa when he was on safari and the truck he was in broke down. He turned to his wife, Marge, and said, “Well, that’s rather inconvenient.” It worked so well in changing their states, now they use the word on a regular basis. On the golf course, if a shot doesn’t go the way he wants, he’ll say, “That shot just underwhelms me.” Tiny shifts like these change the emotional direction and therefore the quality of our lives.


Once you understand the power of words, you become highly sensitized not only to those you use, but to those that people around you use as well. As a result of my new understanding of Transformational Vocabulary, I found myself helping others around me. I’ll never forget the first time I began to consciously use this technology. It was in helping a friend of mine named Jim, a very successful businessman who was going through some tough times. I remember that I’d never seen him so down before.

As he talked, I noticed that he described how depressed he was, or how depressing things were, at least a dozen times in a twenty-minute period. I decided to see how quickly Transformational Vocabulary could help him to change his state, so I asked him, “Are you really depressed, or are you feeling a little frustrated?” He said, “I am feeling very frustrated.” I said, “It looks to me like you’re actually making some very positive changes that will lead to progress.” Since he agreed, I described to him the impact his words might be having on his emotional state, and asked, “Do me a favor, okay? For the next ten days, promise me you won’t use the word ‘depressed’ even once. If you begin to use it, immediately replace it with a more empowering word. Instead of ‘depressed,’ say, ‘I’m feeling a little bit down.’ Say, ‘I’m getting better,’ or ‘I’m turning things around.'”

He agreed to commit to this as an experiment, and you can guess what happened: one simple shift in his words shifted his pattern completely. He no longer worked himself up to the same level of pain, and as a result, he stayed in more resourceful states. Two years later when I told Jim that I was writing about his experience in this book, he shared with me that he has not felt depressed one day since that time because he never uses that word to describe his experience. Remember, the beauty of Transformational Vocabulary is its utter simplicity. It’s truly profound knowledge—something so simple and universally applicable that the minute you use it, it can immediately increase the quality of your life.

A great example of the transformation that’s possible when you change just one word is what occurred several years ago at PIE, the nationwide trucking service. Their executives found that 60 percent of all their shipping contracts were erroneous, and it was costing them more than a quarter of a million dollars a year. Dr. W. Edwards Deming was hired to find the cause. He did an intensive study and discovered that 56 percent of these errors were based on misidentification of containers by their own workers. Based on Dr. Deming’s. recommendations, the PIE executives decided that they must find a way to change the company- wide level of commitment to quality and that the best way would be to change how their workers viewed themselves. Instead of workers or truckers, they started referring to themselves as craftsmen. At first people thought it was strange; after all, what difference could changing a job title make? They hadn’t really changed anything, had they? But pretty soon, as a result of regularly using the word the workers began to see themselves as “craftsmen,” and in less than thirty days PIE cut their 56 percent erroneous shippings down to less than 10 percent, ultimately saving close to a quarter of a million dollars a year.

This illustrates a fundamental truth: the words we use as a corporate culture and as individuals have a profound effect on our experience of reality. One of the reasons I created the word CANI! rather than borrow the Japanese term kaizen (“improvement”), was to build into one word the philosophy and thought patterns of constant, never-ending improvement. Once you begin to consistently use a word, it affects what you consider and how you think. The words that we use carry meaning and emotion. People invent words all the time; that’s one of the marvels67 of the English language, which is so quick to embrace new words and concepts. If you look through a current dictionary you’ll discover the contributions of many foreign languages, and especially from all kinds of special-interest groups. For example, people in the surfing culture have created words like tubular” and “rad” to translate their “totally awesome” experience of the waves to their day-to-day lives. Their private lingo gained such widespread acceptance that it became pan of our common argot and thus the way in which we think. This also brings up the point again that we need to be conscious of the words we adopt from those around us or those we select ourselves. If you use phrases like “I’m suicidal” you have instantly raised your emotional pain to a level that could actually threaten the quality of your life. Or, if you’re in a romantic relationship and tell your partner, “I’m leaving,” you create the very real possibility that the relationship’s about to end. If, however you were to say, “I’m incredibly frustrated” or “I’m angry,” you have a much better chance at resolution.

Most professions have a certain set of words they use to describe their work and the things particular to their type of work. Many entertainers for example right before they go onstage, get a feeling of tension in their stomachs. Their breathing changes, their pulse races, and they begin to perspire. Some consider this to be a natural pan of the preparation to perform, while others see it as evidence that they will fail These sensations which Carly Simon called “stage fright,” kept her from performing live for years. Bruce Springsteen, on the other hand, gets the same kind of tension in his stomach, only he labels these feelings “excitement”‘ He knows that he’s about to have the incredibly powerful experience of entertaining thousands of people, and having them love it. He can’t wait to get onstage. For Bruce Springsteen, tension in his stomach is an ally for Carly Simon, it’s an enemy.


What would your life be like if you could take all the negative emotions you ever felt and lower their intensity so they didn’t impact you as powerfully, so you were always in charge? What would your life be like if you could take the most positive emotions and intensify them, thereby taking your life to a higher level? You can do both of these in a heartbeat. Here’s your first assignment. Take a moment right now, and write down three words that you currently use on a regular basis to make yourself feel lousy (bored, frustrated, disappointed, angry, humiliated, hurt, sad, and so forth). Whatever words you choose, be sure they are ones that you use regularly to disempower yourself. To discover some of the words you need to transform, ask yourself, “What are some negative feelings I have on a consistent basis?”

Next, having identified these three words, have some fun. Put yourself in a crazy and outrageous state and brainstorm some new words that you think you could use to either break your pattern or at least lower your emotional intensity in some way. Let me give you a clue on how to select some words that will really work for you over the long term. Remember that your brain loves anything that gets you out of pain and into pleasure, so pick a word that you’ll want to use in place of the old, limiting one. One of the reasons I used “peeved” or “a bit annoyed” instead of “angry” is that they sound so ridiculous. It’s a total pattern interrupt for me and anyone who’s listening to me, and since I love to break patterns, I get a lot of fun and pleasure out of using these words. Once you get results like that, I guarantee you’ll also get addicted to the process.

Step One: Decide that you’re committed to having much more pleasure in your life and a lot less pain. Realize that one of the things that’s kept you from having that is using language that intensifies negative emotion.

Step Two: Get leverage on yourself so that you’ll use these three new words. One way to do this is to think of how ridiculous it is to work yourself into a frenzy when you have the choice of feeling good! Maybe an even more powerful way to get leverage is to do what I did: approach three friends and share with them the words that you want to change. For example, I found myself being frustrated a lot in my life, so I decided to become “fascinated” instead. I also was often saying, “I have to do this,” and it made me feel stressed. Since I wanted a reminder about how fortunate I am, and because it really transformed my experience, I began to say, “I get to do this.” I don’t have to do anything! And instead of being “angry,” I wanted to either be “annoyed,” “peeved,” or “a little bit concerned.”

For the next ten days, if I caught myself using the old word, I would immediately break my pattern and replace it with the new word. By giving myself pleasure for committing and following through, I established a new pattern. My friends, though, were there to help me if I got off track. They were to immediately ask me, “Tony, are you angry, or are you just peeved?” “Are you frustrated or fascinated?” I made it clear to them not to use this as a weapon, but as a tool of support. Within a short period of time, these new language patterns became my consistent approach.

Does this mean that I can never feel “angry”? Of course not. Anger can be a very useful emotion at times. We just don’t want our most negative emotions to be our tools of first resort. We want to add to our level of choice. We want to have more of those molds in which to pour our liquid sensations of life so that we have a greater number and quality of emotions in our lives.

If you really want to make these changes, go to three of your friends, explain to them what you’re doing, what words you want, and have them ask you respectfully, “Are you (old word) or (new word)?” Make the commitment to break your own patterns as well, whenever possible. Give yourself immediate pleasure whenever you use the new alternative, and you’ll develop a new level of choice for your life.

Of course, using Transformational Vocabulary is not limited to lowering negative intensity; it also offers us the opportunity to powerfully intensify our experience of positive emotions. When someone asks how you’re doing, instead of saying, “Okay” or “So-so,” knock their socks off by exclaiming, “I feel spectacular!” As simplistic as this sounds, it creates a new pattern in your neurology—a new neural highway to pleasure. So right now, write down three words you use to describe how you’re feeling or how you’re doing on a regular basis that are “just okay” in their orientation—”I’m feeling good,” “I’m fine,” “Things are all right.” Then come up with new ones that will absolutely inspire you.


It’s difficult to overestimate the impact our Transformational Vocabulary has on ourselves and on others. We need to remember the value of using what I call softeners and intensifiers; they give us a greater degree of precision in our dealings with others, whether it’s a romantic relationship, a business negotiation, or all the possible scenarios in between. Years ago, when I thought something was “screwed up” in my business, I would call the appropriate person and say, “I’m really upset” or “I’m really worried about this.” Do you know what that did? My language pattern automatically put the other person into reaction, even if it wasn’t my intention; often, they tended to become defensive, something that prevented both of us from finding a solution to the challenge before us.

So what I learned to do instead was to say (even if I felt more intensity), “I’m a little bit concerned about something. Can you help me?” First of all, doing this lowered my own emotional intensity. This benefited both me and the person with whom I was communicating. Why? Because “concerned” is a much different word than “worried.” If you say that you’re worried about something, you may be conveying the impression that you don’t have faith in this person’s abilities. And second, adding “a little bit” softens the message significantly. So by lowering my intensity, I enabled the person to respond from a position of strength and also enhanced my level of communication with them. Can you see how this would improve your interactions at home as well? How do you habitually communicate with your kids? Often we don’t realize the power our words have on them. Children, as well as adults, tend to take things personally, and we need to be sensitized to the possible ramifications of thoughtless remarks. Instead of continually blurting out impatiently, “You’re so stupid!” or “You’re so clumsy!”—a pattern that can in some cases powerfully undermine a child’s sense of self-worth—break your own pattern by saying something like “I’m getting a little bit peeved with your behavior; come over here and let’s talk about this.” Not only does this break the pattern, allowing both of you to access a better state to intelligently communicate your feelings and desires, but it also sends the child the message that the challenge is not with them as a person but with their behavior—something that can be changed.

This can build what I call the Reality Bridge, the foundation for more powerful and positive communication between two people—and have a more powerful, positive impact on your kids. The key in any of these situations is to be able to break your pattern; otherwise, in your unresourceful state, you may say things you’ll regret later. This is exactly how many relationships are destroyed. In a state of anger, we may say things that hurt somebody’s feelings and make them want to retaliate, or cause them to feel so hurt that they don’t want to open up to us ever again. So we’ve got to realize the power of our words, both to create and to destroy.

“The German people is no warlike nation. It is a soldierly one, which means it does not want a war but does not fear it. It loves peace but it also loves its honor and freedom.” ADOLF HITLER

Words have been used by demagogues throughout the ages to murder and subjugate, as when Hitler perverted a nation’s frustrations into hatred for a small group of people, and in his lust for territory persuaded the German populace to gird for war. Saddam Hussein labeled his invasion of Kuwait, and the subsequent hostilities, a jihad, or “Holy War,” which powerfully transformed the Iraqi citizens’ perceptions of the justness of their cause.

To a lesser extent, we can see in our recent history plenty of examples of the careful use of words to redefine experience. During the recent Persian Gulf War, the military’s jargon was unbelievably complex, but it served to soften the impact of the destruction that was occurring. During the Reagan administration, the MX missile was renamed the “Peacekeeper.” The Eisenhower administration consistently referred to the Korean War as a “police action.”

We’ve got to be precise in the words we use because they carry meaning not only to ourselves about our own experience, but also to others. If you don’t like the results you’re getting in your communication with others, take a closer look at the words you’re using and become more selective. I’m not suggesting that you become so sensitized that you can’t use a word. But selecting words that empower you is critical.

By the same token, is it always to our advantage to lower the intensity of our negative emotions? The answer is no. Sometimes we need to get ourselves into an angry state in order to create enough leverage to make a change. All human emotions have their place, as we’ll talk about in Chapter 11. However, we want to make certain that we do not access our most negative and intense states to start with. So please don’t misinterpret me; I’m not asking you to live a life where you don’t have any negative sensations or emotions. There are places where they can be very important. We’ll talk about one of them in the next chapter. Realize that our goal is to consistently feel less pain in our lives, and more pleasure.

Mastering Transformational Vocabulary is one of the single most simple and powerful steps toward that goal.

Beware of labels that can limit your experience. As I mentioned in the first chapter, I worked with a young boy who was at one time labeled “learning disabled” and is now evaluated as a genius. You can imagine how that one change in words has radically transformed his perception of himself and how much of his ability he now taps. What are the words you want to be known by? What characteristic word or phrase do you want others to identify with you?

We’ve got to be very careful of accepting other people’s labels, because once we put a label on something, we create a corresponding emotion. Nowhere is this truer than with diseases. Everything that I’ve studied in the field of psychoneuroimmunology reinforces the idea that the words we use produce powerful biochemical effects. In an interview with Norman Cousins, he told me of the work he’d done in the last twelve years with over 2,000 patients. Time and again, he noticed that the moment a patient was diagnosed—i.e., had a label to attach to his symptoms—he became worse. Labels like “cancer,” “multiple sclerosis,” and “heart disease” tended to produce panic in the patients, leading to helplessness and depression that actually impaired the effectiveness of the body’s immune system.

Conversely, studies proved that if patients could be freed of the depression produced by certain labels, a corresponding boost was automatically produced in their immune systems. “Words can produce illness; words can kill,” Cousins told me. “Therefore, wise physicians are very careful about the way they communicate.” That’s one of the reasons why, in Fortune Management,™ our practicemanagement company, we work with doctors not only in helping them to build their businesses, but in teaching them how to enhance their emotional sensitivity to enable them to contribute more. If you’re in a profession where you work with people, it’s imperative that you understand the power of words to impact those around you.

If you’re still skeptical, I suggest that you simply test Transformational Vocabulary on yourself, and see what happens. Often in seminars, people say things like, “I’m so angry about what this person did to me!”

I’ll ask them, “Are you angry, or are you hurt?” Just asking them that question often makes them reevaluate the situation. When they select a new word and say, “I guess I’m hurt,” you can instantly see their physiology reflect a drop in intensity. It’s a lot easier for them to deal with hurt than it is with anger.

Similarly, you can try lowering your emotional intensity in areas you may not have thought of. For instance, instead of using the phrase, “I’m starving to death,” what if instead you said, “I feel a little hungry”? By using that, you’ll discover as I have that you can literally lower the intensity of your appetite in a matter of moments. Sometimes people overeat simply out of a habitual pattern of whipping themselves into an emotional frenzy. Part of it starts with the language they use consistently. At a recent Date With Destiny seminar, we witnessed a great example of the power of using words to change someone’s state instantly. One of the participants came back from dinner, absolutely radiant. She told us that right before dinner she’d had an incredible urge to cry, and ran out of the room, bawling. “Everything was all jumbled up,” she said. “I felt like I was going to burst. I thought I was going to have a breakdown. But then I said to myself ‘No, no, no, you’re having a break-up/’ That made me laugh. And then I thought, ‘No—you’re having a break-through?'” The only thing she had changed was one word, but by taking control of her labeling process (her vocabulary) she completely changed her state and her perception of her experience—and thus transformed her reality. Now is your chance. Take control. Notice the words you habitually use, and replace them with ones that empower you, raising or lowering the emotional intensity as appropriate. Start today. Set this processional effect in motion. Write down your words, make your commitment, follow through, and know what the power of this simple tool in and of itself will accomplish without using anything else. Next, let’s take a look at something that’s equally fun and equally simple in empowering you to manage your emotions consistently. Together, let’s blaze a trail of possibility as you .. .

-Tony Robbins

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