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Thoughts around a generation's journey to adulting...

Let’s Use Better Words — Like “Lost In Place”

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Negative Language is a Problem when Young People are Struggling

For a while now I have been watching how we talk about situations where a young person is struggling on their way to adult independence. I think a serious problem exists in that the words we use are making it harder for these young people to face and grow through their challenges. 

When a situation emerges where a young person is not growing into traditional “adulthood” as one might expect, everyone at first steps awkwardly around that truth in conversation.  But if progress is not made over time it becomes obvious to all that a real problem exists — and the time for mincing words has passed. So we shift to increasingly direct language, seeking words that are not unkind, but might be honest. But those words are rooted the reality that these are unwelcome situations — so they often bias to the negative. And along the way we may throw in some other judgmental commentary for good measure.

And then their challenges become even harder as they are increasingly burdened by feelings of embarrassment and shame that compound whatever problems may have been there to begin with. 

I propose that we can help “adulting challenged” young people — individually and collectively — by using language that would mitigate the embarrassment and shame that can accompany a young person’s difficulties. 

My objective in this content is to call attention to the negative language problem and introduce the expression “lost in place” with the recommending that we adopt it broadly as more compassionate and constructive language that can help young people to find their way.

The Impact is Real -- and It's Serious

I get that embarrassment and shame can sometimes be powerful motivators that help us to make changes in our lives, often for the better. But these “lost on the road to adulting” situations are acutely sensitive to embarrassment and shame. Negative characterizations can play out in seriously bad ways.

1. The struggling young adult becomes increasingly reluctant to talk about their problems. 

2. More darkly negative characterizations — words like “immature” or “lazy” — sometimes take root and become dominant themes themselves.

3. Negative words cause so much emotional pain and set the stage for associated problems to develop such as mental health disorders, drug use or excessive gaming.

So the damage caused by our negative words is really quite serious.

What About "Failure to Launch"?

One expression people commonly use in reference to these situations is “failure to launch syndrome.” And it is never a compliment. 

“Failure to launch” is obviously negative language. The key word here is “failure.” So this is a story about failure — something is failing or has failed. This person is a failure. The words “failure to launch” certainly do not invite curiousity or compassion around what a person’s real challenges might be.

“Failure to launch” is a great example of the problematic language I am talking about. Even when it is used with only constructive intent, it probably makes these bad situations worse. 

Introducing "Lost in Place"

Today I am sharing the expression “lost in place” with the invitation that we start using it broadly when talking about situations where a young person is struggling on their personal road to “adulting.” 

Let’s start with a simple definition…

Lost in Place means that a person is having serious difficulty navigating a set of life challenges. They are lacking direction, struggling with confidence, fearing failure, and emotionally exhausted. They are feeling so lost that at the moment they don’t have any real plans and are not making progress in any direction.

Here are examples of how one would use it…

Person A:  I haven’t seen you for a while. What have you been up to?

Person B: I dunno. I’m really not doing much. I’m just kind of lost in place.


Person C: What’s your brother Carl doing these days? I never see him anymore.

Person D: Poor Carl isn’t doing very well. He is just lost in place and living with my parents. He really doesn’t know what he wants to do with himself. 

Where It Comes From

“Lost in place” is the product of a focused search for language that could honestly and compassionately characterize these challenging situations without inviting negativity or judgment. 

To do this, I assembled a diverse group of professionals to collaborate with current and former young adult clients of mine. We listened to and deeply considered the experiences of young people who have struggled to make their way into the adult world. And then we brainstormed around different ways to talk about it. (This didn’t just come up over a beer one night.)

The words “lost in place” were actually recommended by a former client who had struggled with his own “adulting” journey for a number of years.

Why It Works

The foundational word here is “lost” and that is how many young people describe what they are experiencing in these struggles. They talk about being lost among conflicting expectations and social / cultural / family messages, lots of things they don’t know how to do and some they just don’t want to do, and then unfriendly, complex “adulting” systems like managing health insurance or paying taxes. It can all be scary and overwhelming. 

And sometimes the stack up of these things can be so frightening that it becomes paralyzing. That is the other part of what it means to be “lost in place” — that a person is so lost that they really have no idea what direction they want to go, and they have no confidence that if they were to make effort in any specific direction that it will turn out right. And they are tired of wrestling with it all.  So they just sort of drift — and they are “lost in place.”

The words also build on the common human experience of being lost. We have all been lost in some way at some time. Being lost does not carry with it any implications about foolishness, immaturity, character flaws or bad intent. Sometimes a person just doesn’t know their way or they have things to learn or they take a wrong turn and they get… lost. So when we encounter someone who is lost, our community good instinct is to help them get sorted out and on their way, not wag judgment at them. 

So Let's Start Saying It

I hope this all makes sense to you, and you will join me in using the words “lost in place” to describe situations where someone is having a deeply difficult journey on their personal road to “adulting.”  

As we sidestep language the might invite negativity, judgment, embarrassment, or shame we can help people to stay connected with the truth that we are talking about good people who are earnestly trying to work through some serious challenges.  

And let’s encourage young people use the expression themselves, so they might be more comfortable in talking about their challenges, attending to their problems directly, and connecting with others who might be helpful to them. 

If anyone would like to talk to me about “lost in place” or related topics, they are invited to connect with me through my website at www.otoolecoaching.com or to email me directly at marty@otoolecoaching.com.

2 Responses

  1. Incredible article! You have a talent for explaining complex topics in a way that’s easy to understand. I really appreciated the examples you used. They helped me grasp the concepts much better. Keep up the great work!

  2. I’m thoroughly impressed by the depth of your analysis in this post. Your perspective is both unique and enlightening.

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Martin O'Toole

Marty is a great listener who asks a lot of curious questions. When he asks about your day or how you are doing, he really wants to know. And he comes equipped with a supply of anecdotes and stories that keep the time together interesting.

He is practical and results-oriented. He believes in showing up every day to do the work and learning by experience. He preaches action orientation, resilience, entrepreneurship, and the importance of good decision-making.