Motto for Life: How to Choose and Use a Motto

Updated on December 14, 2017
CatherineGiordano profile image

Inspirational essays and articles, with a touch of humor, are a favorite topic for Ms. Giordano, a writer and public speaker.. .

Change Your Life With a Motto

A motto helps you achieve your goals in life.
A motto helps you achieve your goals in life. | Source

What Is a Motto?

Everyone should have a motto. A motto is like a friend, a good pal, a mentor—someone who is always at your side and who is always on your side. When you hit the wall, when you crash and burn, when you suffer a loss of confidence, your motto gets you going again.

  • A motto encapsulates a philosophy of life; it tells you how to live. It is a guiding principle. When you have a motto, you truly have words to live by.
  • A motto is a phrase or short sentence, usually punchy and catchy, that sums up the kind of person you are. Or, the kind of person you want to be.
  • A motto tells you what to do. A motto is a command reduced to its very essence. There is an action verb in it, either explicit or implicit.

A motto reminds me that I can find a way to my goal.
A motto reminds me that I can find a way to my goal. | Source

What Is the Reason to Have an Overall Motto?

To get you thinking about mottos and the role they can play in your life, let me tell you about my motto.

It breaks the rule about being short and pithy, but perhaps it is the “exception that proves the rule” because this motto has helped me so much throughout my life.

My Overall Motto

If you can’t go under it, go over it.

If you can’t go over it, go round it.

If you can’t go round it, go through it.

When I am feeling disappointed and discouraged, my motto reminds me that I am the type of person who does not give up. I’m persistent, or as some people might say, stubborn. My motto reminds me to keep trying until I succeed.

We have all heard the adage, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again.” However, if I simply keep trying, there’s another adage that could describe the outcome: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome."

My motto takes it one step further. It says to keep trying, but it also says to keep trying different things. It reminds me that there is more than one way to reach my goal. Go under it, go over it, go around it, and if all else fails, just punch right through it. “Punching through it” means taking a risk, doing something bold, doing something unconventional.

When I’m at an impasse and don’t know what to do, when I think there is no way out, no way to do some impossible task, this motto is like a pep talk. It encourages me, but it also demands something of me. It demands they I don’t give up until I find a way to get done what I need or want to get done. And then, as Nike advises, I just do it.

Why Is an Annual Motto Important?

Who says you can only have one motto?

Every year, sometime during December, I adopt a motto for the coming year. The motto reminds me of my goals for the year. It’s like a New Year’s resolution, but better, in that it is not forgotten before January is even over. The motto becomes my compass for the year.

I have had dozens of annual mottos. A few years back, my annual motto was:

Ride ‘em Cowboy!

I chose that one because I was looking back on a horrible year. I had to deal with a serious health issue, the recession was crashing my business, and I had to sell a house and then buy a new one and move. The motto was to remind me that when life is like a bucking bronco, all you can do is hold on and ride it out.

When life treats you like it is a bucking bronco, "Ride 'em Cowboy" is a good motto.
When life treats you like it is a bucking bronco, "Ride 'em Cowboy" is a good motto. | Source

Some of my other recent mottos are more self-explanatory:

  • Live! Laugh! Love!
  • Reimagine! Reinvent! Reengage!
  • Seek Truth. Live Boldly. Create Beauty.
  • Dare to Dream. Act for Impact.
  • Steady as She Goes.

What Are Some Famous Mottos?

Once you start to think about mottos, you will see them everywhere. Many famous people have mottos, businesses have mottos, organizations have mottos.

Yes We Can

Barack Obama during the presidential campaign of 2008 said, "Yes, We Can."

I like to think this was his motto. When he lost a primary or had some other setback, I imagine him saying “Yes, We Can” to himself. When he repeated those words, it gave him the strength to keep going.

Once Obama became president, I imagined him sitting in the Oval Office saying it every day. He needed all the help he could get to deal with bringing two wars to a successful conclusion, to focus on making quality health care available to every American, to lead the country out of the worst recession since The Great Depression, and to do everything else a president has to deal with.

President Obama 's motto may be "Yes, We Can."
President Obama 's motto may be "Yes, We Can." | Source

Never, Never, Never, Never Give Up

Other leaders have also gotten through tough times with a motto. Winston Churchill, the British prime minister during WW II, said, "Never Never Never Never Give Up."

Four “nevers.” With London being bombed every night and the war looking really bad for Great Britain, perhaps those words kept him going. He needed all four of those “nevers” to keep his determination to win.

Keep Your Eyes on the Prize

How did Martin Luther King, Jr. keep going during his struggle for civil rights? He said: Keep Your Eyes on the Prize.

When they called out the dogs, when they turned on the fire hoses, when he was beaten, when he was sitting in jail, I like to think he told himself “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize,” and that is how he kept going.

Martin Luther King, Jr. had a motto: Keep Your Eyes on the Prize.
Martin Luther King, Jr. had a motto: Keep Your Eyes on the Prize. | Source

Keep Hope Alive!

After the death of Martin Luther King, when Jesse Jackson continued the fight for civil rights, he also had a motto to help him keep going. His motto was: Keep Hope Alive!

“Keep Hope Alive!” is a great motto when engaged in a long ongoing struggle to achieve a goal.

To Thine Own Self Be True

Literature gives some examples of mottos. Shakespeare in his play, Hamlet, said: To thine own self be true.

A great motto! Be yourself! Accept yourself! Don’t try to be who you think others want you to be. Don’t be a phony or a hypocrite. Don’t live a lie. Be true to yourself.

All for One and One for All

In the novel, The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas, the characters in the novel said: All for one and one for all.

I like that one because it reminds me of the importance of teamwork and reciprocity. By working together, by helping others, I also help myself. I help others and they help me, and together we achieve our individual and group goals.

E Pluribus Unum

Consider the motto that the founding fathers chose for the United States of America: E Pluribus Unum

It is Latin for “From Many, One.” I know that this motto guided them as they birthed this new country and helped her to survive. It probably meant: We are thirteen separate states, but we must strive to become one country. I think E Pluribus Unum” also meant we are many different cultures—English, French, Dutch, Spanish, to name a few—but we must become one people.

In 1956, Congress voted to change the motto of the United States. The current motto is: In God We Trust

In my opinion, the new motto of the United States is not as strong as the original one. It is more passive. It tells us to trust in something outside of our selves instead of urging us to take action.

E Pluribus Unum means from many, one.
E Pluribus Unum means from many, one. | Source

United States motto

Which motto do you prefer for the United States?

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How Is a Motto Different From a Goal or Slogan?

Do not confuse a motto with a slogan, an adage, an affirmation. Each of these may help to define, inspire, and motivate you, but they lack a call to action.

When Barack Obama said “Yes, We Can,” he had a powerful motto. When he said “Change We Can Believe In,” he had a slogan. There is no call to action in “Change We Can Believe In.”

When the U.S. Army said in an ad, “Be all that you can be,” they had a really strong motto. They were urging soldiers to aim high and succeed. A few years later they changed the phrase to “An Army of One.” It’s not a motto; there is no command in it. And it is not even appropriate--an army relies on teamwork, not individualism.

How Can You Find Your Motto?

It is my belief that you do not choose a motto; the motto chooses you. Each year, around the beginning of December, I tell myself that it is time to find a motto for the next year. Within a few days, or at most a few weeks, a motto floats into my consciousness, and I immediately recognize that it is the right motto for me. These are the magic words that will first define my goals, and then focus me on achieving those goals.

My most recent motto is "Become Who I Am". A friend showed me a poem he wrote. This phrase was in the poem. It leaped off the page, and I knew I had found my motto.

You may already have a motto without knowing it--the words that come to mind when you need motivation—but you just don’t call them a motto. Take those words, write them down, put them where you will see them every day. When you recognize those words as your motto, they will have so much more power to motivate you.

If you don’t have a motto, just think about mottos, and wait for one to choose you. It won’t be too long before you have a new and powerful ally in your life—your motto.

A Swedish proverb provides some ideas for mottos.  Just select the phrases that work for you.  For instance " Fear Less. Hope More."
A Swedish proverb provides some ideas for mottos. Just select the phrases that work for you. For instance " Fear Less. Hope More." | Source

A Motto or a New Year's Resolutions?

New Year's Resolutions are like a long To-Do List. They are boring. They nag you. No wonder they are forgotten before the end of January.

Choose a motto instead of a New Year's Resolution. A motto inspires you. Choose a broad motto that encompasses all of your goals. Suppose your resolutions are: Lose weight, get a better job, and don't lose my temper so much. Your motto could be: Be a Better Me. The first is just a list to remind you of your faults; the second is uplifting and inspirational.

Please take this poll about mottos.

Do you have a personal motto?

See results

© 2014 Catherine Giordano

I'd love to know your motto or your thoughts about mottos.

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    • CatherineGiordano profile image

      Catherine Giordano 2 months ago from Orlando Florida

      Steve: Mark Twain was on to something. I'll turn it into a motto: Do the right thing!

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      Steve 19 months ago

      Always do right;This will gratify some people, and astonish the rest. ~ Mark Twain

    • CatherineGiordano profile image

      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      XaurreauX I think you have come up with a funny motto, but not that motivational. If I wanted to use driving as a metaphor, I'd Stay "Drive for success." If I wanted to use crazy as a metaphor, I'd say,"Life is crazy. Enjoy the crazy." I expect yu caould do better than these two which I just came up with in a minute. A motto needs thought. Live with it for a while before you decide to adopt it.

    • XaurreauX profile image

      XaurreauX 2 years ago

      If you're going to be driven crazy, it might as well be in a limo.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image

      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      SandyMertens: PIck a good motto. It really can help you reach your goals. Thanks for your comment.

    • SandyMertens profile image

      Sandy Mertens 2 years ago from Frozen Tundra

      Enjoyed reading about the motto for life. I have some negative mottos for my life. But should change them.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image

      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      ginnydragon: I love your mottos. I wish more people would discover the power of a motto. Thanks so much for your comment.

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      ginnydragon 2 years ago

      Listen to your heart

      Open your heart- Spread Love

      Believe your best

    • CatherineGiordano profile image

      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Thank you Pstraubie48. Having a motto is, as you say, empowering. Thanks for commenting. Keep your motto where you can see it so you are reminded of it often.

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 2 years ago from sunny Florida


      Well said.

      Having a motto (I call my guides for living, mantras which is only by MY definition of the term)...can be empowering.

      It certainly does help one to stay more centered than a resolution might.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this topic with us.

      Know that Angels are on the way ps

    • CatherineGiordano profile image

      Catherine Giordano 3 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Thank you snerfu. You made a good point about problems solving themselves. I often just state my problem to myself, and let my unconscious go about solving it. A few days later, the answer presents itself. I'm doing a speech about mottos in two weeks, and I think I will make this point in my speech.

    • snerfu profile image

      Vivian Sudhir 3 years ago from Madurai, India

      Very motivating reading about mottos, it is all the more heartening to learn that the motto chooses you. Yes, it is true, very often if we give it some time, most problems solve themselves. Nice article, voted up.