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  • Writer's pictureAnn Wagner

To need or not to need...

Updated: Nov 28, 2023

Language Games: the many ways in which words have meanings. A look at how we use words -- as leaders, as coaches, as humans.

Language Games: the many ways in which words have meanings. A look at how we use words -- as leaders, as coaches, as humans.

“I just NEED to fix this!” screamed Tom, good friend and Founder of a small company, towards the end of a recent catch-up we had. Tom, like many leaders, was trying to fix…fix these uncertain times that we continue to find ourselves in. So I asked him, and I ask you, do we really need what we think we need? How are we defining need, and the various levels of need?

As the daughter of an English professor, and sister of two more professors, I do find definitions and how we use language fascinating. How specific words within a definition can also evoke different emotions and understandings in all of us.

Let's continue with the word "need," which is defined as:

  1. to require (something) because it is essential or very important;

  2. a lack of something requisite, desirable, or useful.

Here I have Tom, screaming he needs to fix something; this declaration had an immediacy to it, and a lot of emotion. Emotion that symbolizes frustration, deep caring, and a bit of his own fear. Maybe my question – of whether or not we really need what we think we need – isn't quite enough. Perhaps there's another layer or two of complexity involved. Considering the definition from a more psychological perspective, need is “a psychological feature that arouses an organism to action toward a goal, giving purpose and direction to behavior. '' This definition resonated quite a bit with me, bringing in behaviors, goals, and actions → bringing in purpose. Bringing me to refresh my memory of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which remains the most widely known and recognized model of its kind, consisting of 5 tiers, moving from physiological, safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization.

As my chat with Tom continued, I shared with him some of my own recent reflections, honing in yet again on the word “need”, and the impact specifically this word can have emotionally, physically, and mentally. It also turns out, thanks to another dear colleague who brought this to light, that I say the phrase “I need to…” rather frequently. I need to study, I need to spend more time thinking about xxx…, I need to run 5 miles today, I need to structure my days better, I need to walk the dog, I need to activate my new account before I can use it, and so on. It's not surprising that overusing the word need adds a layer of unknown stress and anxiety to my entire being. A need for deadlines to be completed, a need to do what I said I would, a need to be active, and a need to achieve all these aspects with a certain quality.

How we talk to ourselves, and the lens we use, matters so much. Being aware of why we think we need to do something matters. And so I have been intentionally conscious, to the extent possible, of my use of this phrase. When I am running my 5 miles, or thinking about running them, I think about the opportunity to practice - the opportunity to grow as a runner. I try to incorporate the word want as opposed to need. I want to run. When I'm walking my dog, I intentionally say to myself how thankful I am for her, even if she's pulling me down the street desperately trying to catch a squirrel.

And so my answer to Tom, when he screamed he just needed to fix this, my true gut reaction was NO, no you don't. First of all, this is an impossible task. Times are uncertain and they will continue to be; there is no fixing that. But his challenge remained. His concern for something he deeply cared about, his company and the people who work there, is real and valid. Instead of trying to fix this, ie making something uncertain certain, I believe we should embrace the uncertainty and talk about the fear. This is where the opportunity for development and growth lie. This is where we can learn to become more adaptable, more comfortable, and more open to respectful and vulnerable communication. This is where we can be true leaders. Afterall, leadership is the ability to “take responsibility for something that matters to you and successfully engage others in bringing it to life” (definition by Chris L Johnson). And Tom, like most leaders I come in contact with, is trying to do just that. With the correct balance of reflection and action. And empathy.

And so both Tom and I are focusing and refocusing the lens we use as leaders, as coaches, and as humans. We ended our call in agreement that we can't fix what is unfixable, or what is not supposed to be fixed. That is not what we need to be doing. But we should lean into those opportunities for growth and development, for vulnerability, for collaboration, and for sharing. Whether we are leaders of a company, school project, local running club, or our own lives, whatever we do is only as good as the intention behind it. My old Barre teacher used to say this about our workouts (shoutout to @shirahmoves): “view anything and everything through the lens of practice”. Practice allows for consistency, for progress, and opens the doors for new opportunities. For me, this has all softened the internal phrase and stress of “I need to…. “ and leads to many more smiles on my face.

Do we really need what we think we need? Probably not – but for now let's practice the balance of reflection and action. Let's practice speaking kindly to ourselves.

Lead well. And you'll determine what you need and don't need.

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