It Is What It Is

Reflections on the Power of Words

by Heather Kinzie

love words. My mom ignited this adoration. As a child, when I dared to suggest I was bored, my mom would hand me a dictionary or thesaurus and expect a report of what I had learned over dinner. I loved the way some words sounded, and often I’d try to impress others by using fancy words. My mom had the audacity to suggest I should refrain from using words I could not pronounce or spell correctly; I was undeterred.

Under the tutelage of a keen advisor in college, my vocabulary increased and my competence and passion for language followed suit. In my 20s, I talked my way out of a few traffic tickets, and I am certain I talked my way into my career. Since then, my commitment to thoughtful, creative, and the occasionally clever use of words has been a pillar of my personal and professional life.

It is ironic that I, a lover of words, have been brought to my knees with five unassuming ones.

It Is What It Is
According to the New York Times, the phrase “it is what it is” appeared as early as 1949 in an article written by J.E. Lawrence in The Nebraska State Journal. Lawrence used the phrase when describing the difficulty individuals faced during frontier-era life: “New land is harsh, and vigorous, and sturdy. It scorns evidence of weakness. There is nothing of sham or hypocrisy in it. It is what it is, without apology.”

This all-too-common expression has passed my lips countless times. However, all too often, I overuse the phrase while feeling hopeless, apathetic, or devastated. Therein lies a problem.

The phrase has since been used in politics, sports, business, the military, and psychology. It has been the title of songs, books, blogs, a movie, and even a musical short film. Throughout these contexts, “it is what it is” has been used to express resignment to a situation or set of circumstances, usually without complaint. The circumstance is simply a fact and must be accepted or dealt with as it exists.

This all-too-common expression has passed my lips countless times. However, all too often, I overuse the phrase while feeling hopeless, apathetic, or devastated. Therein lies a problem.

When I connect “it is what it is” with the feeling of hopelessness, I sabotage my potential success. When I couple “it is what it is” with apathy, I give myself permission to withdraw from the situation, which often leads to a lack of accountability or creativity. When I pair “it is what it is” with feelings of devastation, I easily fall into a victim mentality riddled with anxiousness and insecurities.

Words, you see, express our thoughts, and our thoughts ignite our feelings and emotions. Feelings and emotions drive our behavior, and our behavior affects our outcomes. So, my words, and the feelings they create, will either help or hinder my success.

It Is What It Is, But…
In 2019, Susan Henkels gave a TedX presentation in Sedona called “What if there’s nothing wrong with you?” In it, Ms. Henkels, a psychotherapist, spoke of her irritation with the phrase “it is what it is.” She had grown tired of the phrase because her patients were using it to describe helplessness and total resignation. I was just like one of her patients; for far too long, I used the phrase to concede defeat.

This was ever apparent months ago when a significant health issue put the brakes on my mobility. Negative, defeating thoughts consumed me, and I felt I was doomed. Thankfully, a few close friends and family members, once they learned about my situation, helped me realize how damning my mindset could be. So, with great effort, I actively replaced the limiting cognitive thoughts with those that were more hopeful. This wasn’t a natural paradigm shift for me, so I researched the power of thought. I learned that how I phrased situations in my mind could affect the emotions and feelings that followed.

In addition to rephrasing my language about a particular situation, I committed to ensuring the growth mindset was ignited by adding the word “but” to my newly articulated phrases. Some examples are below.

…I researched the power of thought. I learned that how I phrased situations in my mind could affect the emotions and feelings that followed.
  • “Standing is impossible so I cannot cook” became “Standing is really difficult, but if someone can rearrange things in my kitchen, I can cook.”
  • “I can only hobble around with this walker” became “I may only be able to hobble around with this walker, but I am quite valuable to my clients standing, sitting, or hobbling.”
  • “I cannot drive” became “I cannot yet drive, but I have friends and neighbors who are willing to help me get to where I need to be.”

“But” helped me switch from a powerless mindset to a liberating mindset. “But” enabled courageous movement forward so I could make the most out of my situation.

It’s been six months and I have fallen back into bad habits more often than I care to admit, but I catch myself and I am committed to improvement. (See what I did there?)

It Is What It Is, So Now…
As I reflected on the overused phrase, I realized another significant way in which I used the phrase. “It is what it is” was often an admission that a problem or challenge was too difficult to overcome. This mindset suppressed my ability to be creative, innovative, or courageous. As a leader, I cannot afford to restrain my capacity for such things. The phrase cannot be used as an excuse to say “I can’t” when my success demands I use it as ignition to ask, “how can I?”

As a consultant and coach for over 20 years, my mantra has been to improve my community, one employee, one team, and one leader at a time. What better time than now to start with myself!

There is a remarkable difference between “I can’t” and “how can I?” and to get there, I added the words “so now” to “it is what it is.” Some examples of how I am accepting the facts of the situation while intentionally leaning into possible solutions are as follows:

  • My client is disappointed that a major mistake in the project went undetected, so now I need to solicit from the clients what they would like to see as a remedy. So now, I need to gather the team to brainstorm mitigating ideas.
  • I cannot physically tend to my garden or lawn this summer, so now I need to solicit help from folks looking for work or, if it makes more sense to offer a trade, begin to engage in those exchanges so all of us can get what we need.
  • I cannot travel to the East Coast right now to be with a grieving friend, so now I need to carve out time during my day to check in on her. So now I could get creative with video to let her know that she’s in my heart. So now I need to reach into our shared friendship circle to ascertain how we all might help my friend and her family.

“So now” enables meaningful improvement in my attitude and outlook. “So now” serves as a gentle reminder that I can and should lean and lead forward. “So now” kindles my capacity for problem solving and better enables creative ideation.

It Is What It Is, It Ain’t What It Ain’t
Anita Fain Taylor, the third place winner of the 2018 World Championship of Public Speaking, offered a brief presentation during the 87th Annual Toastmasters International Convention. “It Is What It Is, It Ain’t’ What It Ain’t” was a joy to watch. Ms. Taylor speaks of her father’s wisdom in that he recognized that the phrase “it is what it is” expressed obvious facts. However, her dad’s addition of “it ain’t what it ain’t” was his attempt to tell his daughter there was much more to her story. Ms. Taylor’s father told her that when people suffer setbacks, they tend to over-focus on what is happening, and they rarely pay attention to what is not happening. Or, they over-focus on what they think the circumstances mean, and they lose sight of what the circumstances do not mean.

After watching Ms. Taylor’s presentation, I reflected on my history. I thought of the devastating blows, the incredibly bad news, and the insurmountable barriers that had shaded my past. Indeed, I often perceived these situations as all-encompassing. Moreover, I realized I also attached my own worth, value, or potential to these challenging or disturbing times. No wonder these times were debilitating!

Since watching Ms. Taylor’s presentation (three times!), I decided to add some thinking to my thinking. What I mean by this is that I pledged to mindfully consider what the circumstances are not. Below are some relevant examples from the past few weeks.

  • My recovery is slower than the neurosurgeon anticipated, but each week I see improvement. In addition, a slower than average recovery does not mean my condition will not improve.
  • This relationship is over. It was enjoyable while it lasted, and its end is not a reflection of my value as a partner.
  • My professional life has been disrupted. This is not the first time a storm has come, and the drivers of this disruption are not associated with my expertise and potential. Moreover, they are not predictors of my future.
It Will Be What We Make of It
In 2016, three people used three excellent words when they unveiled the tagline for their business, “aggregating innovative positivity.” Folks were perplexed, and often asked, “What does that saying even mean?” I can’t speak for Rick Thomas or Denise Thomas, but I would answer, “we will bring imaginative, hopeful people together to create or enable the best solution or plan for any particular situation.”

I love words. “It will be what we make of it” is an incredible use of words. The phrase demands we be accountable, it encourages us to move forward, and it invites us to be courageous.

Reflecting back on that day, I remember long discussions about the economy, potential competitors, redundancies and deficits in expertise, etc. I was scared, Rick was confident, and Denise was probably somewhere in the middle. Starting a new business is overwhelming, but I clearly remember feeling, as we continued to collaborate and plan, that doing something new together was more thrilling than terrifying. I remember mindfully moving forward with enough reality to keep us grounded but enough faith to keep us creative. I remember thinking that if we stayed true to our tagline, we wouldn’t—we couldn’t—fail. But of most significance, I remember believing that while we did not know exactly how we were going to make it work, we were confident that it would be what we made of it.

I love words. “It will be what we make of it” is an incredible use of words. The phrase demands we be accountable, it encourages us to move forward, and it invites us to be courageous. “It will be what we make of it” deserves a prominent space in our lexicon. Might it even be my new mantra? Indeed, it is what it is!

Heather Kinzie headshot
Heather Kinzie serves as the chief operating officer for The STRIVE Group. With more than 20 years of organizational and workforce performance experience, Kinzie offers consultation; facilitation and mediation; content development and training; and coaching to clients around the country. She oversees a team of experts who utilize a broad, systematic, and collaborative approach to analysis, problem solving, and consultation. Recognizing the critical importance of leadership, communication, and effective collaboration among teams, Kinzie is committed to helping clients improve communication, engagement, and organizational performance.