The things we say, and the way we say them, have an enormous effect on the people around us. Through communication we can draw people's attention to things that need fixing — and, if we choose our words with care, we can even fix things just by talking.
I'm not talking only about Fixing Big Things — as when leaders of warring nations sit together to make peace or union leaders meet with bosses to find a workable compromise. I'm talking also about the tiny, everyday interactions that can transform the way we think about the world — our world, if not necessarily the whole world.
One of the most significant exchanges I've had this week was with a friend, Catherine Stagg-Macey, who was about to leave for a party celebrating the end of her current employment and the start of a new life running her own business. I offered my congratulations. And, because we happened to be talking on the day my book was published in the U.S., I mentioned that to her.
She hadn't known anything about my book — not even that I had written one. "Wow," she said, "that's amazing. What are you doing to celebrate?"
If she hadn't asked, I might not have noticed that I had planned nothing at all. Nothing!
She was incredulous. Seeing her reaction enabled me to find a new perspective. I felt humbled and slightly embarrassed: Who did I think I was, to take such a thing for granted? Looking at it from Catherine's point of view, I thought: My goodness! I published a book! And in the U.S. too!
Catherine was very forgiving. She told me that she too routinely used to overlook her achievements. But she had learned to celebrate every one of them, as much as possible. "I was so good at getting to the goal and quickly moving on," she said. "Now I celebrate the small things and the big things too."
So I made plans. I phoned my wife and told her I would like to go out for dinner, to an American-themed restaurant near where we live in north London. Part of me expected her to say, "Don't be silly. Why make a big fuss?" But of course she didn't say that. She was delighted to help me celebrate, and my daughter was too.
The point of this post is not to pat myself on the back: I've already done that. It's to offer a reminder that, when we are trying to make things better — to "change the world," as my deliberately provocative book title has it — it's easy to be preoccupied by what still needs to be done.
But if you don't also stop to celebrate your mini-victories, you'll burn out. So: When did you last celebrate your achievements?
More from John-Paul Flintoff:
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John-Paul Flintoff is an author, broadcaster, and journalist. He has written several books, including Sew Your Own, in which he investigated sweatshops and global resource shortages. He lives in London. How to Change the World is his latest book.
Books mentioned in this post
John-Paul Flintoff is the author of How to Change the World (School of Life)