Why I can’t let myself say “I can’t”

Growing up, I was forbidden to say two seemingly harmless little words. As I struggled to learn how to tie my shoes and spell library correctly, all I wanted to do was fall on my knees, raise my hands to the heavens, and scream “I CAN’T!” I didn’t, though, because in my household, this would have been tantamount to swear words. Even when I was beyond frustrated because I couldn’t remember if the bunny ran around the tree before burrowing underneath it or why there was an R after the B in library, I would be scolded if I dared to state that the task before me was impossible. They would sit me down, tell me to stop thinking that way, and encourage me to try again. The phrase became so taboo that when I would hear my classmates or friends utter “I can’t,” I would involuntarily shudder. (Nice Pavlovian training, parents.)

Obviously, as I got older, there were things I just wasn’t good at, like math. My attempts to write proofs or solve for x were actually comical, and so I had to come to terms with the fact that I would not be the greatest mathematician the world had ever known. I also couldn’t (and still can’t) reach the snacks on the top shelf of my pantry without a step stool, because I was 5’2″ when I stopped growing.

But soon the line between I can’t and I don’t want to became blurred. As I realized I legitimately could not breathe underwater or make myself invisible, no matter how badly I wanted to, I saw a hole had been blown through my parents’ theory. I started to let the rule slide. I began to make excuses for things I was scared to do. I would say things like, “I can’t play Burgmüller for my piano recital” because I didn’t want to play Burgmüller for my piano recital. Or “I can’t sing “Think of Me” from The Phantom of the Opera“because I worried the piece was out of range. Each time I allowed myself this refusal, my confidence faltered, and I became less and less likely to even try.

But because I was scared to try, I started to miss out on some really awesome opportunities. I started racking my brain, trying to come up with someone to blame, some outside force that was at fault for my missed chances. My teachers were pushing me too hard! Nobody was helping me! The expectations were unreasonable! Eventually, I realized that the only person to blame was me. So this year, I applied for an extremely prestigious scholars program at my university. The program only accepted 20 girls but more than 100 had applied. In spite of the probabilities, I approached the opportunity with my best can-do attitude. I filled out the complicated application, slaved over THREE essays, and prepared tirelessly for both a group and individual interview. And, guys, I made it! I was accepted, because if you try, try, try and think you can, like the Little Engine, everything works out just as you wanted it to!!!

No, of course not. Although I ended up being among the final 35, I was unfortunately not selected to participate in the program. At first, I felt ashamed. I was really disappointed in myself. I had worked so hard, but it wasn’t enough. My parents’ rule was childish and totally unrealistic. I believed that I could, I tried, and I failed. What was the point of trying again, of lying to myself with an “I can” if I truly couldn’t?

After a week or so of brooding, I knew I was the one being childish. Yes, there are things that we won’t be able to do, either because the laws of nature prevent us — or because we’ve given it our best shot and we still didn’t succeed. But it’s that last part that matters. The only thing I truly can’t do is apply one setback to the rest of my life. When my parents stopped me from saying “I can’t” they were really just trying to instill in me the confidence to be able to try (plus, they knew I would have to learn to tie my shoes and spell library eventually).

That’s not to say that it’s not OK, or even necessary, to accept defeat. Obviously, we will all fail at some point. It’s one of the hardest parts of life, grappling with the idea that, despite our best efforts, it didn’t work out. We did not get the job, or the trophy, or the partner, or the outcome we wanted.

But, still, “I can’t” is inaccurate. I couldn’t in this instance, this time, in this situation. But there’s always a next time. There will be another opportunity to succeed. In the meantime, there’s no room for regret. If I’d only half-heartedly attempted to get into the program, I wouldn’t have been whittled down to the almost-there group. I wouldn’t have gotten in, and I would have either allowed it to demoralize me further or else wondered what might have happened if I’d given it my damnedest. Well, at least I know. My damnedest wasn’t enough, but one day it will be.

Failure is a part of life, and it makes our successes that much sweeter, even if we can’t — excuse me, don’t see that in the moment. Have I nipped my desire to say “I can’t” in the bud? No. But I’m resisting it. Because I know if I say it, I pretty much seal my fate. I give up. I go down without a fight. That’s not the way I want to lose: full of regret, and never knowing what would’ve happened if I had summoned the strength and the confidence to risk putting in my all. Think of all the things that wouldn’t get done if everyone let their doubt crystallize into fact. Sorry, electricity. Bye-bye, life-saving medical procedures. We hardly knew ye, Apple Watch. No, I won’t let that happen, for you or for me. Instead, say it with me now: I can. I can, and I will.

[Image via here]