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"Just" - A Form of Self-Sabotage


I have always appreciated the story of when President Kennedy visited NASA in 1961. He happened upon a janitor who was mopping a floor. He introduced himself and asked the janitor what he did for NASA. It may strike you that his answer would have been obvious to our esteemed leader. For decades, many people have shared his answer. It represents the impact our words have when t


hey support our intention. He said, “I’m helping to put a man on the moon.” This janitor’s words impart that his contribution was of value and that he was a part of something greater. Leaders use this example routinely to connect how important it is for employees to be engaged in the vision and mission of an organization.


A more common response may have been, “I’m just the janitor.” Or “I just keep things clean around here.” The operative word choice here is “just.” As an adjective just typically means lawful, proper, fair, or righteous. As an adverb, it typically means exactly, precisely, or barely, only, simply. When we use just as a description of ourselves or related to our actions or contributions, it is these last three words that come to mind. This denigrates our intention and serves no purpose.


I was once visiting a patient when a dietitian entered the room. She had what looked like a lab coat on, as did many of the other people who entered that room. This patient was older, medicated, and having difficulty keeping things straight. The dietitian was double-checking the lunch order. When the patient asked who she was, she responded, “I’m just the dietitian.” She may have been thinking about her role in comparison to that of the nurse or the physician and signaling that she would not be causing any pain or doing anything complicated. She may have been thinking of her long-term career plans. She may have even been thinking of how her role fits into that of the entire organization. Either way, she missed several opportunities.

  1. She missed an opportunity to connect what she does daily to the mission of the organization.

  2. She missed an opportunity to impart to the patient the skills she brings to the patient’s care.

  3. She missed an opportunity to support herself and enhance her inner voice.

  4. She missed an opportunity to connect to her values and intent.

Here are some suggestions she might consider for greater impact:

●       I am a registered dietitian, which means I am responsible for your nutrition.

●       I am a registered dietitian on our fantastic culinary team.

●       I am a registered dietitian and excited about my role in your care. I ensure we meet your dietary needs.


Consistently saying that you are just a ________ diminishes the value of your role, as well as your perception of yourself. Just as a qualifier may signal a lack of confidence and low self-esteem. Choosing to eliminate the word just reframes the sentiment to one of competence, perhaps even pride. Your words matter and so do you.


Adapted from my recent book - The Words We Choose: Your Guide to How and Why Words Matter

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