4 Mottos You Can Look at, but Can’t Keep: The Power of Personal Mottos, Part II



“There are mystically in our faces certain characters which carry in them the motto of our souls, wherein he that cannot read A, B, C may read our natures.” ~ Thomas Browne

I truly believe that those who live by a well-defined motto (or set of mottos) have a great advantage over those who don’t.

Our mottos become guide posts and verbal beacons along the road we travel. They are the street names on the map of life. They are the rhetorical equivalence of a compass to help us get our bearings and stay on course.

They also reflect the heart of our hearts. They are terse statements of deep value, of what we aspire to be. They also help teach the fundamental ideas we want to pass on to others, especially our children.

Some mottos are grand and sweeping statements about core values. Such are broad life-mottos. Others are shorter situational-mottos, better applied to specific circumstances.

I have several of these shorter mottos I’m willing to lend you for a while. If you take good care of them, maybe I’ll let you keep a few.

4 Mottos I Live By … on loan … cheap

1. “Live and Learn”

Life is about learning and stretching and growing. We experience life’s joys and sorrows. But the sorrows often pack deeper and greater lessons than the joyful and happy times. The message behind the motto is therefore twofold:

  1. Life is a classroom, a teacher of universal principles. The process of living is equivalent to the process of attending class: It is intended to instruct. Therefore, expect lessons to be taught, and tests to be given and some of those tests to smart a bit.
  2. Failure is no big deal so long as we don’t make a big deal out of it. When I mess up, for example, when things just don’t go my way, it’s common to hear me say, “Oh well, live and learn!”

In other words, don’t sweat it; Learn from it. Take the lesson from the situation and let the failure, the disappointment, the frustration, fade away.

In the end, the spilled milk is only spilled milk. The misstated word is only a word. The traffic jam is nothing more than that, a traffic jam. No big stinken’ deal! “Live and learn” becomes the verbal tool I use to refocus my thoughts.

By focusing on the lessons life is trying to teach us, we resent it less when life’s tests include rocks and stones thrown our way. We realize it’s not trying to hurt us as much as trying to teach us something only a stone or two can get us to see clearly.

Many people lose the lesson in the pain. They can’t retrain their eyes on the what they’re being taught. This motto helps.

2. “Not a Big Deal”

This is a motto I may overuse (and often use in conjunction with “Live and Learn.” It’s one that’s true, but not always appreciated by those who feel in the moment that what I’m verbally downgrading IS a big deal to them.

Nonetheless, there are innately big deals in life. Births and deaths, job losses and serious injuries and the like fall into that category.

Most other things are relegated (in my mind, anyway) to the level of “no big deal.” So the TV program got cancelled. So the green light skipped us. So the lady in front is taking too long. Really, in the larger scope of things, is it really that big a deal?

Just the other day my son was telling me that he saw a boy in the gym with only one hand, that his other hand was half missing, smaller than the other, and attached to a stub of an arm.

My response? I said matter-of-factly, “Hmmm. No big deal. Some people have hands, some don’t. Some have two legs, some can’t walk. Some people can see, some can’t.” He shrugged and said, “Yeah, no big deal.”

More recently, my 5-year-old son came home from school and spoke of being shorter than his friends. My response was the same as with the one-handed boy at the gym.

“Oh? Hmmm,” I started. “No big deal. Some are short, some are tall and some are medium. Some people are black, some are white and some are other colors. No big deal. We’re just lucky everyone doesn’t look the same. Then how would I know which boy to pick up from school?”

His answer was heartening. He giggled at the thought of me not knowing which little boy was mine and nodded, “Yep, no big deal. We’re all just the right size.” He’s heard me say that before too!

Ah, the power of a repeated motto!

But be careful not to get in the habit of justifying bad behavior and excusing laziness and inertia with a flippant “No big deal” for things that are big deals.

So be warned and use this motto with caution.

3. “It is what it is”

If rain starts to fall on the picnic or no one shows up to the party or the store is closed or the park was more expensive than we thought it would be to enter, my family will often here me say, “Well, it is what it is.” We’ll then change plans and do something else.

It is a way to accept the frustrating, to deal with the disappointing without letting it ruin the day. It isolates the moment, then accepts it and tucks it away. It then allows me to look anew at the newly developed circumstance and choose another response, another course, perhaps a better one.

My use of this motto is sometimes preceded by my “no big deal” motto. “No big deal” places the challenge or the disappointment in context. “It is what it is” accepts the reality of the need for a change of plans divorced from negative feelings about the need to change them.

It keeps attitudes positive when circumstances may otherwise be perceived as negative. This, of course, applies to those things I have no control over (such as the weather and others’ behavior). This attitude can be the slow suffocation of growth and improvement applied to other controllable things of high priority.

So use wisely.

4. “Just pain; goes away”

When I bump my head, gash my leg, twist my ankle, or otherwise bump and bruise my physical body, someone usually asks if I’m okay. That’s when I’ll say, “Just pain; goes away.”

What it does:

1. It redirects my thoughts, thereby minimizing the pain. There’s nothing that focused attention doesn’t make bigger. Learning to ignore some of life’s uncomfortable moments helps us enjoy life a little more, given its fairly frequent dose of discomfort.

2. It sends a message to my nervous system that overwrites the importance of the discomfort, allowing me to continue doing what needs (or I want) to get done. I don’t wallow in the pain. I recognize it. See if there’s something I need to learn from it. Then ignore it.

3. It also teaches and reinforces a larger life lesson: Pain does indeed pass. It fades and over time, goes away. Emotional pain does too. “It’s just pain” helps place pain in a larger, broader context, with a more distant-looking perspective.

Pain – or the fear of it – stops too many people dead in their tracks. They retreat and hide and wrap themselves in the tourniquet of fear. Adopting this motto would be a good idea for those stuck in their pain.

But internalizing this motto helps reduce its painful impact in the first place.

Some people fall to the ground, wallow in misery and dwell on the pain, letting everyone else know in vivid detail just what they’re going through. My motto keeps me from that kind of self-indulgence.


The words we use not only reflect what’s in the heart, our words help put things in the heart. Our words influence and school the heart.

When we think carefully about our values, condense them into a terse, repeatable statement, our words become focused and concentrated.

And therefore, more effective at instructing the heart of the values we hold dear.

And over time, we learn that pain does, in fact, go away, that what we look like doesn’t matter, that not everything we don’t like is a big flipping deal, that sometimes it’s better to change perspectives than circumstances, and that, indeed, we are all here together, stumbling in the dark, trying to make sense of it all, learning one day at a time.

To read Part I of this series, click here: What’s the Motto with You: The Power of Personal Mottos, Part I

Now it’s your turn

  • Do you have sayings or situational mottos you use regularly?
  • What do you think of the ones I mention here?
  • Would LOVE to hear your thoughts

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