5 Common Phrases That Create Failure (and What to Say Instead)

Replace these common workplace expressions with more powerful alternatives and you’ll succeed much faster.


Words have power. The things you say reinforce how you think, which in turn determines what you do or are willing to do. These five common phrases generate attitudes and beliefs (in yourself and others) that make failure easy and success more difficult:

1. “I’m having a bad day.”

The difference between a good day and a bad day is literally all in your head. Every day has surprises, pleasant and unpleasant. It’s how you handle them that’s essential. When you’re in a resourceful mental state, you handle crises and opportunities alike with grace and aplomb. If you’re in a less-than-resourceful mental state, you flub even the easiest of challenges. Characterizing the problem as the “day” creates failure because 1) it absolves you from managing your emotions, and 2) it pretty much guarantees that the rest of your day will continue to be “bad.” What to say instead:“I’m not at my best right now, but I’m working to get there.”

2. “If I’m lucky, then…”

Serendipity–where seemingly random events create amazing opportunities–does indeed happen and so do unexpected disasters. Attributing either to luck or fate, though, makes your eventual success harder to achieve. What is, is. What happens, happens. Every result has multiple real-world causes. While you may not be able to perceive all causes or anticipate all results, there’s no flying spaghetti monster that’s sprinkling luck-dust over here but not over there. Believing in “luck” creates failure because: 1) it provides an easy way to shirk responsibility for your failures, and 2) it encourages you to rely upon the supernatural rather than take the actions necessary to become more successful. What to say instead: “What else can I do today to achieve my goal?”

3. “I’m stressed out.”

The term stress originated in physics, where it defines “the average force per unit area that some particle of a body exerts on an adjacent particle.” Too much stress, for example, is why a bridge collapses. Human beings, however, aren’t bridges. What happens to them is not at all like an impersonal force applied to an inanimate object. Human beings can grow and change and adapt to new circumstances. When you say, “I’m stressed out,” you’re identifying yourself as a powerless object upon which outside forces are acting. That attitude creates helplessness and hence failure. You end up “coping” rather than taking positive action. What to say instead: “I’m taking a breather before I take more action.”

4. “The priorities are…”

The word priority implies singularity. Multiple priorities is an oxymoron. This isn’t semantic quibbling, because if you have more than one priority you have no idea what to do first. At each moment in time, there is always something more important than everything else you could be doing. That is the priority and that’s what you should be doing–with your full attention. Having more than one priority creates failure because you end up mentally multitasking. When your attention is divided between multiple activities, you aren’t as effective as if you focused on the single action that matters most. What to say instead: “The immediate priority is…”

5. “Who’s at fault?”

There are few human behaviors less useful than finger-pointing. What’s past is past. What’s important isn’t why something happened but how to achieve a better outcome in the future. This is not to say that people shouldn’t take responsibility for their actions. Taking responsibility, though, is the exact opposite of finger-pointing. Finger-pointing creates failure because it 1) keeps you focused on the past, 2) creates unnecessary resentment, and 3) makes people more afraid to take risks. What to say instead: “Here’s what we must do differently next time…”

-Geoffrey James, Inc Magazine


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