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Turned By Phrase: A Life in Three Quotes


Handle them carefully, for words have more power than atom bombs.
-Pearl Strachan Hurd, British Politician


I love a great turn of phrase. Perhaps you’ve noticed.

I love them because they harness the power that words have to shape a life, focus it to laser clarity, and allow it to penetrate deep into who we are. At their best, they help us become better people. When well turned, the turn of phrase turns us.

I looked back over my life, and the website articles, to find the Big Three quotes that have turned, and are currently turning, my life both as an exercise in self discovery and an encouragement for you to try it also.

I found some interesting things, just as an overview to guide your own search:

Quotes are timeless but not in the classic sense; more like time bombs. A good quote can lay dormant until life, or another quote, triggers it, then—BOOM—wisdom. All of these quotes were said by three “wise men” of my youth.

Perfection is not required as you will see. Grammar and syntax are second to the message. Simply put, the smartest things may not sound the smartest at first listen. Take Yogi Berra. Please.

The speaker is not important, the wisdom is. In fact, none of the men I’m about to quote really said the things that I attribute to them. Writers wrote them, they acted them, and their characters—beings who do not exist—technically said them. Aside from these three to illustrate that point, we have another great turn of phrase, “Someone once said…”



It’s too big a world to be in competition with everyone.
The only person who I have to be better than is myself.
-Colonel Potter, M*A*S*H 

I’ve always loved Mash, and Col. Sherman T. Potter. As with good beef and whiskey, Col. Potter’s wisdom is mostly corn-fed. I came across this quote early last year and it became formative in my view of self improvement. I’ve never really been overly competitive with others and have always been overly critical of myself. This turn of phrase helps me balance self discipline with a zeal for self improvement that had been lacking prior to the quote bomb.

Cut Yoda

Do or do not; there is no try.
-Jedi Master Yoda, The Empire Strikes Back 

When I first heard this quote I was one of the many young boys trying to figure out the difference between and empire and an umpire, for I had no experience with the latter in elementary school. But this wisdom has stayed with me even as the puppet who mumbled the words was replaced by computer animation. It has become the energy that fuels the pursuit which Colonel Potter crystallized for me. Nike can say “Just Do It” but I’ll always hearken to Master Yoda because he put the effort into a continuum and context to which we all can relate. The part of ourselves that is afraid to hope, that doubts us, says “I’ll try.” Our inner Jedi says simply, “I’ll do.”


That’s all I can stands, cuz I can’t stands n’more!
-Popeye the Sailor-man

I can’t say I was crazy about Popeye’s show. He got a bad wrap in my house because he was on so late in the day or early in the morning. But he was a wise fellah, just ask his “goile Olive.” This is another turn of phrase that I heard as a wee one, which keeps coming back self-referentially. In addictions we say that you need to become “sick and tired of being sick and tired” and anyone in the life-change fields would note the belief that people need to be “ready” to change. All that is accurate, Popeye just says it best; you only really change once you “can’t stands n’more!”


The Life Application Childhood


It remains striking to me that these speakers were A) embellished characters and B) spoke to me most during my childhood. I encourage you to search there first for your own three wise men and their gifts. But also, those of you with children, don’t overlook the voices who speak to your young ones. What may be childhood nonsense now has the great potential to lay dormant for years then—BOOM—wisdom. 



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