“If you get wet, I’ll buy you a beer” or the importance of positive language in goal-setting)

“If you get wet, I’ll buy you a beer”

These are the last words my canoeing instructor said before I rolled my boat over in the Thames. In February.

3 weeks earlier I had joined the Reading University Canoeing Club, 18 years old and ready to jump in the deep end. Over those 3 weeks we had learnt all sorts of simple canoeing techniques in the swimming pool off the London Road. I could go forward, backward, left and right. I could even get out of my boat upside down.

Now I suppose the real question is why didn’t we practice Eskimo rolling in the pool (rolling your boat over and up through 180 degrees). But this didn’t cross my mind until I got to the Thames.


My instructor (whose name has been erased from my mind along with all other traces of the trauma) explained how to roll the boat. He showed me in his own boat. He even reassured me that if I didn’t make it over, it was OK – I knew how to get out so. And he was there. I wouldn’t drown. Great!

“But surely it’s gonna be pretty cold if I have to get out?” I asked.

“You’ll be fine” he replied, adding the famous last words: “If you get wet, I’ll buy you a beer”


And this is what I wanted to write about: Positive grammar in objective setting. I’ve already mentioned this in my other post on PERSONAL goal-setting but there’s nothing better than a story to make a point, right?

The brain concentrates on everything positive first. Negation comes second. If you tell a child not to drop her glass, she first hears “drop” and then tries to equate the negation. Chances are she already dropped the glass…


So there I am on the Thames. My brain knows how to get out of the boat – I have assimilated those movements into my repertoire. Now it’s time to try something new. Concentrate. Remember what the coach said…

“If you get wet, I’ll buy you a beer”


30 minutes later, dry again but still shivering I sipped my beer in the bar by the water. I watched the others roll their boats over and made 2 promises which I have kept ever since:

  • Always phrase objectives in terms of desired positive outcomes
  • Never go canoeing again


Thanks for reading!


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See also Melanie Hoffner’s blog on positive mental attitude

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About Dan Steer

Wandering corporate trainer, learning and development consultant, conference speaker and professional El-Magico. I help people get better at stuff by creating and facilitating Infinite Learning © opportunities. The world would be a better place if everyone was doing what he loved and doing it well. I am working to bring out the "El Magico" in everybody. Training in presentation and communication skills, leadership, social media for learning and marketing, learning and development management + personal effectiveness.

Posted on January 14, 2012, in Leadership, Resources, Self-Effectiveness and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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