From Can’t To Can

My wife and I recently had an opportunity to make lemonade out of lemons. Our two regular, daytime childcare providers chose the same week for their summer vacations. Instead of scrambling to find replacements, we decided to take a little break ourselves and go to a nearby hot springs retreat for a few days.

While relaxing in one of the warm pools, I had an interesting conversation with a man who had been a ski instructor for over 15 years. The resort where he teaches in Utah has some kind of harness that allows the instructor to ski with a child as young as 2-3 years old. The harness gives the child the feeling of skiing freely while ensuring his or her safety. The instructor is always connected and supporting the child.
In this way a child grows up “knowing” that he or she can ski. They never have the awkwardness that older children or adults experience when putting skis on for the first time. Their bodies and brains get programmed early on to believe that skiing is normal, natural, and that they know how to do it.

The next morning, I took my daughter Ella for a walk in her new stroller. As we meandered alongside a gurgling creek, I noticed that she was having trouble getting her bottle out of the mesh cup holder. She kept trying, coming very close, until finally she looked up at me, clearly asking for help. My first instinct was to reach down and take the bottle out of the pocket for her. But I resisted that urge, and instead, encouraged her to try again. “You can do it, Ella.” She gave me a very cute, determined nod of her head, turned back to her bottle, and, sure enough, with just another 15 seconds of effort, she pulled that bottle out and took a nice long drink.

Now here’s the interesting part. Later on that same walk, I noticed her reach down casually – I’m not even sure she looked! – and pull the bottle out of the pocket. It was as if she had always known how to do it and there was nothing simpler in the world.
Just that one learning experience had shifted her entire perception. Instead of questioning her ability to succeed, she now knew from experience that she could do it, and that knowledge enabled her to do it easily and effortlessly.

Which brings me to now, to us, to you and me and to the attitudes and perceptions we bring to our projects and pursuits and to our entire lives. We are surrounded by taglines and clichés extolling the virtues of positive perceptions, “Just do it.” “Can-do attitude.” Etc. And yet, my personal experience and my observations of others suggest that very few of us approach life with the perspective of “can-do.” We usually approach life with the attitude of “I’ll stick with what I know.” We tend to avoid attempting something new because our core belief tells us that, at worst, we can’t do it and, at best, it will be a struggle.

We approach new projects, jobs, relationships, anything that has not previously been proven possible with a doubting attitude, an attitude of “I can’t do this,” or, “this is going to be difficult,” instead of approaching it with the attitude of someone who knows they can do it. “I can do this. This is going to be easy. Sure it may take some time, yeah I’ll need to learn some new skills, but I know I can do it.”

The interesting thing about these two attitudes is that there is no difference in the potential outcome. In either case, when you are trying something new, you will either do it or you won’t do it. You will either succeed or fail.

When you approach something with an “I can’t” attitude more often than not, you match or meet your expectations by failing. You are predetermined, if you will, to fail, and so, you usually will. Occasionally, you surprise yourself when you succeed.

I know there have been many – more than I care to remember – times when I have turned away from an opportunity because I was afraid I would fail, I was afraid of not doing it well. Often, I was not even aware of that fear. It was hidden deep in my psyche, running the show from the background.

I’d rather see us approach new things with the attitude of “I can.” With that perspective, with a predisposition to success, we’ll find that most of the time we match our expectations by discovering that we can do it, we can succeed. And when, on the rare occasion, we fail, we’ll recognize the opportunity to learn and accept that we just were not meant to succeed at that particular task.

Can you think of opportunities that you have passed up because you were doubtful of your ability to succeed? Can you think of times when you have avoided doing something you really wanted because you felt you would not be good at it? Can you think of some opportunity or possibility in your life right now that would require you to bring a can-do attitude, an attitude of assumed confidence rather than presumed incompetence?

For at least the next week I encourage you to be on the lookout for signs of your inner “can’t” voice. When you hear that voice whispering all the reasons why you can’t do something, begin to consciously and intentionally shift your focus to the much softer ca voice. Shift your perception from can’t to can, from fear to fun, from no to yes.

In Buddhism there is a term called Beginner’s Mind that encourages practitioners to bring an empty mind, free of any preconceptions, to each new experience they encounter. Barring the possibility of attaining that level of emptiness, I want to encourage you to cultivate and nurture an attitude and perception of optimism.

Take a moment, right now, to imagine how your life would be different if you approached it with an attitude of “I Can” instead of an attitude of “I Can’t” or even “I might be able to.” Imagine that, like those little kids being guided down the slope by a nurturing, supportive ski instructor, you had been blessed with a “life instructor” who instilled in you the truth, the feeling, the knowledge that anything you want to do, you can!

How would that feel? How would that change the way you approach your life? If you knew that you could not fail, what project would you take on? If you knew that you could only succeed at whatever you attempted, how would your life be different?