3 Simple Words Will Set You Free Cover

3 Simple Words Will Set You Free

When Robin Williams died in 2014, the world lost a legend. No scene better encapsulates his brilliance than what must be one of the greatest monologues in entertainment history: the park scene in Good Will Hunting.

After being horribly verbally assaulted by his patient and boy genius, Will, therapist Sean makes one last attempt at getting through:

“So if I asked you about art you’d probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo? You know a lot about him. Life’s work, political aspirations, him and the pope, sexual orientation, the whole works, right? But I bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You’ve never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling. Seen that.

If I asked you about women you’d probably give me a syllabus of your personal favorites. You may have even been laid a few times. But you can’t tell me what it feels like to wake up next to a woman and feel truly happy.

You’re a tough kid. I ask you about war, and you’d probably — uh — throw Shakespeare at me, right? “Once more into the breach, dear friends.” But you’ve never been near one. You’ve never held your best friend’s head in your lap and watched him gasp his last breath, looking to you for help.”

What Williams’s character is doing, though it may not seem like it at first, is giving Will a chance. A chance to say “I don’t know.” An opportunity to admit that he’s scared and talk about his feelings.

We can see that it’s working, because Will, for an on-screen eternity of four minutes, does not say a word. He just sits there, petrified. Here is a scene in which the main character doesn’t do a thing, yet it is pivotal, not just in the movie, but also for our lives.

Whether you show this scene to someone born ten years before the movie came out, or ten years after, they can relate. We, too, have been given plenty of chances to say “I don’t know” in our lives so far.

But, like Will, we keep missing them. This makes us miserable deep inside.


The Shattered Self

Maybe it happened after you graduated college. Or entered. Maybe when you started your first job, or even after high school. But at some point, you had a terrifying epiphany:

“I don’t know anything about life. I have no clue what to do and I can’t see how the hell I’m going to figure all of this out.”

It’s one of those moments where you can feel the metaphorical glass shattering, because your view of the world forever changes. The shattered self is something all humans go through, but, according to Simon Sinek, there is a group that experiences this traumatizing, but important event very early in their lives: millennials.

The reason my generation stands out is not because of our age, but because of how we react to this event.

We choke.

A Different House of Cards

As Sean continues his speech, Will’s expression hardens more and more.

“I look at you; I don’t see an intelligent, confident man; I see a cocky, scared shitless kid.”

Terrified Will Hunting

He gulps. He can’t even look at Sean now. In an instant, the house of cards that was his sense of confidence collapsed. For many of us, entering the real world feels exactly the same.

Once we’re burdened with the full weight of responsibility for our own lives, we quickly realize we have no confidence. I see two reasons:

  1. We haven’t accomplished much worth being confident about.
  2. All of our lives, we’ve been told the exact opposite by our parents.

The first cause is normal. A history of achievements needs history as much as it needs achievements. But the second one isn’t. More and more, helicopter parents keep sheltering their children and it turns them into incomplete adults.

I’m not saying those were your parents, or my parents. The point is there are parents who do these things to their children and, worse, they think they’re making the right choice.

Having not had enough time to build it, and with no foundation for our confidence to rest on, it only takes a brief, lonely moment of clarity as we grow up for it to crumble. Faced with reality, we’re forced to unlearn what’s not true and feel like an impostor, mortified at the idea of being found out.

Unfortunately, unlike Will, we don’t all have a therapist to catch us as we fall.


What compounds this suffering of low self-esteem is that we suffer it in silence. Not only did we not learn confidence, we also chose the wrong coping mechanism to deal with the fact that we have none.

Going through adolescence, we untie our self-worth from our parents and attach it more to our peers. This is an important change that helps us integrate in the real world: we learn to rely on our friends.

Enter technology.

When I was 13, everyone in my class started using a service called ICQ. It was the first standalone instant messenger and instantly, we messaged. Outside of school, I spent more time on ICQ than anywhere else. Most of us did.

We chatted more than we called, more than we hung out in person, more than we went outside. Teenagers enjoy chatting less, but because of its dopamine-inducing nature, they get addicted anyway. So no, we did not learn to rely on our friends. We learned to rely on technology.

You can replace ICQ with many other things — Facebook, Snapchat, Netflix, WhatsApp — the year changes, the outcome remains the same. Instead of learning to control our mood with serotonin, or what it feels like to be loved with oxytocin, we go on a dopamine-only diet. Gambling, alcohol, sex, most addicts find their drugs as teens. So did we, it just didn’t have the label on it.

Thus, when our self is shattered, we have no one to turn to. We’re alone with our devices. We look at our peers through 4″, 12″ and 50″ screens and all we see is everyone’s highlight reel.

“They’re doing so well and I don’t. I can’t talk about that.”

So we gulp. We swallow. And we remain silent, staring at the letters. ICQ.

You know what it stands for? “I seek you.”

What Kind of Choice?

Seeing Will crack, Sean must twist the knife:

“And if I asked you about love y’probably quote me a sonnet. But you’ve never looked at a woman and been totally vulnerable. Known someone could level you with her eyes. Feeling like God put an angel on earth just for you, who could rescue you from the depths of hell. And you wouldn’t know what it’s like to be her angel and to have that love for her to be there forever.

Through anything. Through cancer. You wouldn’t know about sleeping sittin’ up in a hospital room for two months holding her hand because the doctors could see in your eyes that the term ‘visiting hours’ doesn’t apply to you.

You don’t know about real loss, because that only occurs when you love something more than you love yourself. I doubt you’ve ever dared to love anybody that much.”

The result of all this, the lack of confidence, the false images, the weak technological replacement for true friendship, true love, is that we keep spinning in circles.

As we reach the end of our 20s, and 30s, then 40s, we begin to live in a world in which everyone is too scared to admit that they’re scared and so we all remain lonely and clueless about feeling lonely and clueless.

When we constantly grab our phones, we don’t do it to procrastinate. We do it because we’re terrified of being alone. Every day, every second. We’re not even chatting just to chat, we’re chatting to feel less discomfort.

We fundamentally lack the ability to express our feelings in the company of other people.

The third most common cause of death for people aged 15 to 24 is suicide. One in ten adolescents is depressed. 64% of millennials feel overwhelmed at work every day.

The best way we can express how we feel is a two-word cry for help: “I’m fine.” Our careers, our love lives, our friendships, it’s all fine, and then we die.

What kind of a choice is that?

Like a Freakin’ Rainbow

Social media, digital communication, online entertainment, these things aren’t bad, it’s just our usage that’s off. We depend on devices, not people. It’s not solely our fault either. Technology found us way too young and we could never let go.

What we can let go of is our fear of opening our mouth and speaking our truth. Yes, we still don’t know jack shit about life. That fact will never change. Not at 20 and not at 85. But all the irrational fears surrounding that fact? Those are imaginary.

It’s okay to say how we feel. Anywhere. Any time.

Even right here, right now. Try it. Say it. “I don’t know.” See? You’re free to express who you are. You don’t need anyone’s permission. The rest of us is just waiting for it too.

This does not make our challenges any easier, just easier to bear. We must remember why we use technology to communicate.

  • What’s this app for? Who do you talk to with that? Why?
  • Does this platform build your confidence? Or destroy it?
  • Is what you see real? Or are you just assuming it is?
  • If you can’t say it in person, is it worth saying at all?

We also need to put boundaries on digital communication.

  • When you sit at a table with other people, even ones you don’t know, who deserves your attention more? The Facebook friend you don’t really know far away or whoever is right there?
  • If you go out with your friends, why do you need a phone? Take one phone. Or no phone. You’ll be fine for a few hours.
  • Yes, that video you sent your friend was funny, but how much more fun would it have been if you’d waited until you could watch it together?

None of these will be easy, but through all of those trials, you can show us your true colors. We’ll adore you for it like a freakin’ rainbow.

Why Are We Here?

Every time you swallow important feelings, you rob the world of the chance to learn something from you. But that’s the main reason we’re here. We’re all waiting for it.

Even though everything Sean has thrown into Will’s face is true, he’s still willing, still curious, to learn from his fellow human:

“I can’t learn anything from you I can’t read in some fuckin’ book. Unless you wanna talk about you, who you are. And I’m fascinated. I’m in. But you don’t wanna do that, do you, sport? You’re terrified of what you might say.”

Usually, it’s not a therapist sitting next to us on the bench. Just some random dude. Or a young mom with her child. But isn’t that enough? What if, unlike Will, we didn’t let them walk away?

Go back all the way to that moment. Back to that shattered self. How did it feel? What if you hadn’t swallowed it? What if, in that minute, you’d had the guts to reach out and say: “I have no clue. Can we talk about that?”

While that first one may have defined much of who we are today, the truth is that, in life, we all have many of these moments. Again and again, we realize we’re scared, lonely and we don’t have the answers.

Neither do our phones. Or Twitter. Or our coworkers. So in reality, we’re free to admit it any time. We know this is good for us. One of the most popular quotes in the world is a 2,000 year-old line from one of the wisest men ever:

“I know that I know nothing.” — Socrates

Imagine how liberating that must’ve felt. Every single thing you’ve ever been dying to say, but never dared to — every feeling, every thought, every question, every idea — it all starts from here.

You don’t need to look so tough. You can tell us how you feel. Because we don’t know anything either. We have no opinions. We, too, don’t want to be judged.

When you want to be curious, let yourself be curious. Say “nice shoes” or “what’s that mean?” or “how’d you do your hair like that?” If you feel like laughing in the middle of a crowded place, laugh. And when you don’t know what to do, let us know.

The man who taught us this lesson, Robin Williams, lived it both in character and in life. He played jokes on live TV in front of millions and talked openly about his problems with alcohol and depression.

Like Will, he leaves us with three words that carry all the hope in the world:

“Your move, chief.”