January 10, 2019

The Power of One Word

Several years ago, I began writing. I had never written outside of school or work, but at the prompting of a writer friend over the course of dinner, I decided to keep an online journal - fully exposing myself in the process - as a way of shaking up my life. So as not to chicken out, I started writing and posting that very night. As with any habit, the first few days were tough to get motivated and actually drive myself to get it done. My writing lacked sophistication and skill, leaving me feeling seriously vulnerable and lame. And yet I kept reminding myself I shouldn’t be concerned about that piece. I didn’t take on that challenge for other people, I did it for me. I embraced that learning and growing can be messy. I chose to work through that mess publicly because I knew myself well enough that even if no one ever read what I was writing, the very act of putting it out there held me accountable to get it done every day.

As you can imagine, dreaming up 365 things to write primarily about one’s self can be rather daunting (and let’s be honest, boring). I had developed the habit of writing and posting every single night before I went to sleep. Some days I would brainstorm a topic during the course of the day, and sit down at my keyboard ready to go.  Other nights, I just started at a blank page and flashing cursor, with no clue how to start. And then I came up with the idea of asking friends to “Give me one word.”

The rules were super simple. I’d reach out to a friend and I’d ask them to provide me with one word - any word - and share with me. I also asked them not to share any context about why they selected that word. Ultimately, I’d take the word provided and riff on it, creating my own story about however I related to that word.  It was an incredible thing; that one word proved to be a fantastic creative outlet for me but more importantly was the opportunity it gave me to connect with the person who shared it. After I posted, I always went back to them to share how I had interpreted it, and then asked what they had been thinking about when they shared it. BOOM! Deeper connection, all based on one word.

This weekend, the notion of the power of one word came up twice.  I was cruising Netflix and stumbled onto Ellen Degeneres’s new stand up special, Relatable. When she told a friend she was thinking of doing stand-up again after fifteen years, she was hoping for a reaction of “REALLY?!!!!!!”  Instead, she received a “REALLY???”  Rather than being met with enthusiasm and support, her friend countered her about her potential change in relatability since her early stand-up days, given the enormous success she’s had. That one word, “relatable” provided fodder not just for a really funny comedic special, but also for her own inward exploration of how her relatability might have morphed over the years of building success. That one word had a tremendous impact.

The second time it came up was during my preparation for the kickoff meetings we are in hosting over the next several weeks at work. Long ago, Rapid7 elected to use a moose as a symbol of teamwork, and it’s become a significant rallying point in our company. I had been telling the story of why a moose along with branding many of our internal programs with this word for years. It wasn’t until I recently sat down with one of the former employees who actually came up with the use of this word in our company vernacular that I realized the impact that one word had actually had.

In its condensed version, the story behind “Why a moose?!” came from two sales leaders back when the company was very small, and trying to gain a grounding in the emerging cybersecurity field. These two guys had very different skills and approaches and, ultimately, we're getting in each other’s way to the point of neither being overly successful. One day, one of the guys said to the other, “The singular of the word moose, is moose.  The plural of the word moose is also moose. You are a moose. I am a moose. Together, we are one moose.” Understandably, the other sales leader looked at him like he was insane. However, they went on to reason that when you are operating singularly, you won’t accomplish nearly as much as you will be partnering together. From that day on, the notion of moose within our company represented teamwork and the importance of collaboration. Since that time, it’s become our mascot, and more importantly, it’s set the tone for the basis of our entire culture. One word had a tremendous impact on the direction of how we scaled our company.

Just one word can have the power and ability to help and to heal, or to harm and to hurt. They can inspire someone to achieve their best, or they can have negative ramifications that last a lifetime. It can influence a brilliant comedy routine, or it can create a cultural foundation for a company.  Depending on the word, and the tone with which it is shared, it can demotivate, or worse, completely alienate someone.

Challenge for the new year: Consider the words you use most often, and the impact they are having. Select the most positive word, and elect it as your mantra. Next, consider the most negative word in your vocabulary. Whether it’s creating self-criticism or contributing to a toxic team environment, identify it and erase it. As illustrated above, even just a singular word can have a dramatic impact. Whether you are writing it, speaking it, or just plain wearing it on a t-shirt, consider your words carefully; they may just change the course of history.

FWIW: While I am likely to choose a number of them over the course of this year, my current word of focus is “evolve.” The word I am erasing from my vocabulary this year is “tired.”

Christina Luconi is Chief People Officer for Rapid7. Follow her on Twitter: @peopleinnovator