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All About You: The power of positive phrases

All About You by Richard Hawk

EDITOR’S NOTE: Motivating employees to work safely is part of the safety professional’s job. But who motivates the motivator? In this monthly column, veteran safety pro and professional speaker Richard Hawk offers his entertaining brand of wisdom to inspire safety pros to perform at their best.

“I think I can! I think I can! I think I can!”

More than 30 years have passed, but I still remember reading “The Little Engine That Could” to my two children when they were toddlers.

In case you’re not familiar with this delightful children’s story, here are some details: Although the tale had been told for many years in different versions, the book was first published in 1930. It’s about a little blue steam engine that agrees to pull a long train over a high mountain – a seemingly impossible task. By repeating the mantra “I think I can!” over and over, eventually – after much strain and near failure – the engine succeeds. It’s a wonderful story about the power of determination and optimism.

Do positive phrases make a difference in real life? Can they really help us during difficult times or even just in general? Research shows that they do. I’ve read through several studies and books on the subject. Across the board, evidence shows that “self-affirmations” and reading (or thinking about) a positive phrase can help you handle difficult situations. It also improves performance. Although researchers and scientists have different opinions about why this happens, they agree it has an impact.

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For example, new research published in Psychological Science explores the neurophysiological reactions that could explain how self-affirmation helps us deal with threats to our self-integrity.

“Although we know that self-affirmation reduces threat and improves performance, we know very little about why this happens,” said lead researcher Lisa Legault, of Clarkson University.

I use self-affirmations, wise sayings and funny quotes as part of my daily routine to stay upbeat and energized. They work for me. Here are some practical tips on how they can help you, too.

Create a list

On my desk is a sheet of paper with a list of sayings and quotes. When I find a saying or affirmation I like, I add it to the list. I put each new phrase at the top of the page so the list moves down. Once a phrase is off the first page, I don’t see it every day because I only print out the first page. Then, at various times – especially if I’m getting a bit tired, discouraged or am losing my focus – I’ll read over a few of the phrases. Here are some of my recent favorites:

“Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard. But if you can somehow combine the two, you can be legendary.”

“Nothing great is ever done without passion.” – Immanuel Kant

Why not start your own list? Besides helping your emotional state, it’s fun!

Post and repeat your principles

On the wall in my office are three tenets I strive to live by: “Make other people feel special,” “Enjoy the journey” and “Live with passion.” I’ve said them to myself thousands of times. If you already have some principles you strive to live by, I encourage you to consciously repeat them and post them where you will see them regularly.

Another story I read to my children when they were old enough to handle it was “The Little Blue Engine” by Shel Silverstein. In this tale, the engine doesn’t make it up the hill – even though he keeps repeating “I think I can!” Instead, he crashes and gets “mashed into engine hash.” The lesson: Thinking you can is not enough, and there’s more to a successful life than repeating affirmations. It’s true – action is required if you want to have a fulfilling life. However, when faced with a challenge (especially something like maintaining your enthusiasm as a safety and health professional who has to regularly put up with complaints), it will help if you take the time to remind yourself that “You think you can!”

Richard Hawk helps companies around the world create more vibrant safety cultures by showing them how to make safety fun. As a professional speaker, author and musician, he also inspires employees to focus better and enlightens safety leaders about ways to increase their influence. To learn more about Richard, visit

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