Over the last decade, I have continually found myself intrigued by a field I never thought would interest me: linguistics.

In particular, I’m fascinated by how linguistics intersects with psychology. 

The words you use profoundly impact how you think and behave.

Here are a few examples.

I often encounter clients who tell me there is huge demand for what they do, they have no competitors, and sales have declined.

This, of course, makes no sense. 

If there is high demand and you have exclusive supply, your sales should be increasing and at premium prices too.

It turns out the flaw in their thinking is their definition of the word “competitor.” In their minds, a competitor is another company that does exactly what they do.

From a customer’s point of view, your competitors are “any alternative to buying from you” — which includes living with the problem, solving the problem in-house, and buying a poor substitute as an alternative.

I requested my client make a simple linguistic change in their company culture. Within the company, replace the word “competitor” with the phrase “any alternative to buying from us.”

So, when the marketing department is tasked with marketing against “competitors,” their new role is to market against “any alternative to buying from us.”

This simple linguistic change allowed the marketing department to create brochures, PowerPoint presentations, and talking points that explained why a customer should “buy from them now” versus “buy from them later.”

(Their customers would often say, “If we are going to buy from anyone, we will buy from you… But we want to do it later, not now.” Hopefully, you can see how marketing that says, “Our company is better than XYZ company” would be a complete waste in this instance.)

Another linguistic twist I’ve been thinking about for the last 3-4 years is the distinction between a house and a home. In the United States, it’s the American Dream to own your own house.

To own is better than to rent (which differs from many other cultures around the world). A larger house is considered better than a smaller one. A more expensive house is more impressive than a less expensive house.

However, in my view, a house and a home are totally different things.

A house is built with concrete, wood, nails, a roof, and paint. A home is built with people you care about that you love and who love you back.

One is built with your hands (or purchased with your wallet and built by someone else’s hands). A home is built with your heart.

I have been in a great many incredible houses.

I have also been in a handful of very loving homes.

The two are almost never the same.

I find that in life you often get what you pay attention to.

The key question to ask yourself is this, “Are you paying attention to the right things?”

I know a great many Americans who have goals to buy a house or to buy a bigger or better house. They have savings plans. They look at listings online. They visit open houses.

I know very few Americans who focus on creating a better home (regardless of what the physical house looks like).

The two are not the same thing.

The first is achieved through financial planning — earning more, saving more, borrowing more.

The latter, creating a better home, is achieved by working on the relationships between the people that live in the home.

The latter is MUCH harder and much rarer.

It’s okay to want both. Just realize each on their own often takes a considerable amount of work and energy to accomplish. Sometimes you just don’t have enough energy for both.

I recently had a chance to visit the home of an old friend — someone I hadn’t seen in about 20 years.

It’s frankly pretty surreal to meet someone that I last saw literally half a lifetime ago.

She and her husband have built an incredibly loving home for their two kids. The physical house itself is quite modest compared to the great many houses I’ve been in over the years. The home they’ve co-created for one another and their kids is such a delight to witness.

Here’s the thing.

They were both extremely conscious, deliberate and extremely focused on creating a loving home for themselves and their kids.

And they very much got what they paid attention to.

When it comes to creating a strategic plan for your client, your career or your life, the essence of any strategic plan comes from making conscious trade-off decisions.

We can fund project A or B, but not both. I can choose to work at McKinsey or Bain, but I can’t choose both.

When you don’t have a strategic plan, your choices are often made implicitly and often unconsciously. To be strategic requires you to have conscious intention and make difficult decisions.

In this example, if you could choose to have a wonderful house or a wonderful home, which would you choose? Assume you only have enough life energy to accomplish one outcome.

Which outcome is more important to you?

Next question: Are your actions congruent with your words? If not, why not?

Being strategic in your life is about making the difficult choices consciously and for yourself.

As a part of this process, choose your words carefully, because word choices often imply certain trade-off decisions. Just make sure the decisions implied by your word choices are trade-off decisions you actually want to make.

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