April 23rd, 2012

The Power of Can't

This speech may be listened to or read (or both, if you're feeling ambitious!). The written version is a close, but not exact, transcription.

Listen here.

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‘Can’t’ means ‘won’t’ and ‘won’t’ means pushups.

I say that on the first day of circus class.

I say it to nine-year-olds.

I say, we’re not here to quit. We’re here to be amazing.

And when you try a new trick, and you fall down and say, “I can’t!” that’s the same as “I quit!” You are giving away your power to learn something new.

So kids, when you’re having a hard time with a move, holler for a coach. Maybe you just landed on one.

Identify the problem.

I’m not sure where to put my hands.

Why does my foot keep slipping?

My partner keeps dropping me.

That’s something I can help you with.

But if I hear you say, “I can’t!” well, ‘can’t’ means ‘won’t’ and ‘won’t’ means pushups. And you will drop and give me ten. And that will make you stronger next time you try the trick. Everyone’s a winner.

As adults, we are still in the ‘can’t’ habit.

Oh, I wish I could make it tonight, but I can’t.

I wish I could find a good relationship, but I just can’t.

I wish I could be a writer or an artist or running my own company, but I can’t. 

As adults, can’t means won’t and won’t means being powerless. We are assigning ourselves the inability to accomplish something, instead of recognizing that we are always, always in the driver’s seat.

That is our hand on the throttle, that is our body in the wheelhouse and that map in front of us? The one full of Do Not Enters and No-U-Turns and Dead Ends?

We drew that map.

Maybe we typed it out in undergrad when we were supposed to be studying, or drafted it in AutoCAD in our first job, or scribbled it on the back of a napkin at the coffee shop or finger-painted it on the wall in great, beautiful colors that are still not showing the picture of the life we want to create.

Now I’m not saying we all have the power to run out and become everything we think we want to be.

For example, I’m a trapeze artist. I’m a 39-year-old trapeze artist with no gymnastics background. I’m unlikely to work for Cirque du Soleil until I build up my resume as a director.

So the first thing we can do to avoid that crippling, crushing feeling of being trapped in our current life is to make a goal that we genuinely want, and that we can genuinely achieve. For me, “Cirque du Soleil aerialist” is not an achievable goal. But “Make a full-time living as a performer, travel a lot, and love my job” is.

For a writer, “New York Times bestseller list” may not be achievable. But “Finish a novel and try to sell it” is. So is “Develop an income stream from my writing.” And on your way to those goals, you will probably get a realistic idea of whether New York Times Bestseller is a possible future, whether “write full time” is a possible future, and at what scale you can realize your goal.

Later tonight, we’ll talk about creating the road map that gets you to that goal, how a goal is a dream plus a plan.

But for right now, the biggest shift we can make to feel good about our lives is to recognize that ‘can’t’ is not a lack of ability. It is not a lack of time, a lack of money, or a lack of talent.

Can’t is a choice.

And recognizing that choice is the first step towards making change, because that choice tells you what you’re placing importance on in your life.

For example:

I can’t be a writer because I can’t quit my day job and I don’t have time.

What this choice says is, “There’s something about my job I value and am unwilling to give up.”

You might value cash, to support your family, to pay your rent. That “I can’t” means, “I value being a breadwinner. I will need to make sure my family is provided for, or that we are willing to accept a change in lifestyle, before I spend my limited pool of time on writing instead of working.”

And that’s a choice.

I know a beautiful trapeze artist – she’s the best in her local group. I would hire her in an instant – she’s strong, flexible, brave, and fun to watch in the air. Clients would love her. Audiences would love her. If she wanted to, she could build a successful freelance career doing something she loves.

She’s a veterinarian.

And after twelve years of becoming a very, very good, specialized veterinarian, she has an investment she’s unwilling to give up to run away with the circus.

She loves animals. And when she walks into work and intubates a dog—you can perform CPR on a dog without a tube, but it’s kind of icky—that feels as good as applause.

So it’s not that she “can’t” be a full time aerialist. It’s that she has something else she loves more, that she’s put a lot of time into, that makes her want to stay in town, perform twice a month, and be content with a fun hobby.

Does it make her wistful sometimes? Sure. But she knows it’s a choice. And every day she actively makes that choice is another day of happiness in her life instead of resentment and anger. Another day of knowing she’s at the right place on her map.

Successful people have often made a big choice.

John Grisham. New York Times Bestselling author. Boring characters, dull dialogue, and an incredible mastery of page-turning plot. Two hundred and fifty million copies sold. Movies. TV series. Whenever I’m on the road and I’m bored, I can always find The Pelican Brief in the Salvation Army for a quarter.

But before John Grisham was a full-time writer, he was a full-time lawyer with a family. And every morning he woke up at 3:30AM so he could write from four to six and then go put in ten to twelve billable hours.

Clearly, here is a man who made the choice that he wanted to be a writer more than he wanted to sleep. And, I’m guessing he also wanted to be an attorney more than he wanted to spend meaningful after-school time with his children.

That’s a choice. Grisham could have said, you know, I care more about family time, I’m going to scale back my billable hours until the kids go to college, sleep longer, and write when I retire. And that’s a valid choice, too.

Some of you are parents. And your kids are probably among your highest priorities.

I am not a parent. I don’t want to hear the little hands tugging at the locked door while I turn up the volume in my headset and finish a chapter. And I could phrase that as, “I can’t have kids.” Or I can say, “Parenting looks incredibly rewarding for some people. But it’s not my first choice on how to spend my time.”

If your kids are why you “can’t” start pursuing your dream, remember that that’s a positive. You have chosen something important to you – being a parent – and assigned it higher importance than another dream.

If you “can’t” move to the city with the best opportunities for your dream, you may have chosen security, or living near people you love, or living in a pleasant neighborhood instead of a sixth-floor walkup in Queens with no A/C, as more important to you.

Those are all valid choices. But they are choices and not reasons. They do not make you untalented. They do not make you unable to realize your dream.

And when you have identified those choices, when you have rooted through “I can’t!” and figured out what “I can’t” is protecting, you can start planning your dream and turning it into a goal. If you value cash, maybe you want to be a part-time writer until it generates income. If you value family, maybe you love them first and starting your own business second and sleep or vacations or a second car gets short-changed. If you value security, maybe you become an actor at your local theatre, or do summer stock between semesters, instead of slogging it out on Broadway.

Can’t means won’t and won’t means pushups.

It’s up to you. You can be miserable and trapped and doing pushups while the other kids learn cool tricks.

Or you can identify your priorities and make a choice.

It’s not your obstacles.

It’s not your luck.

It’s not your talent.

It’s your choice.

What do you value? And based on those values, what can you do?

Step back into that wheelhouse. Put your hand on the throttle. And let’s start drawing the map.

whipchick is an aspiring motivational speaker; this will be the first segment of her first speech.