Saturday, October 22, 2011

Beyond "can't."

When I was younger, my philosophy was this: get by doing what you're good at, and don't even bother with the rest. This led to a life of avoiding things that were the slightest bit challenging. Math. Riding a bike. Learning to read music. As you might guess, my skills in problem solving and persistence were sorely underdeveloped.

I might have continued in this direction, if it wasn't for one amazing person. In an earlier post, I mentioned my time in the pre-med program where I took nothing but math and science courses. All subjects that weren't my strong points, or so I thought at the time. My very first science course was General Chemistry, taught by the toughest professor in the department. His tests were legendary and could take five to seven hours to finish!

He was also the nicest, most caring professor -- and person -- as I found out during my first week. I showed up in his office asking for help with the homework assignment, and in my usual fashion, I'd done none of the problems and expected him to spoon-feed me every step of the way. He told me he was happy to help me any time, but that I'd get more out of our sessions together if I tried the problems first. Even if I just wrote down what I knew and what I needed to know.

I didn't like this answer. Doesn't he know I can't do this on my own? I thought. But part of me trusted him, so I went home and did as he suggested. The next day I came to his office slightly embarrassed, because I only had two questions, and they were little ones! He wasn't surprised. He just laughed and said "I told you so," and that was the beginning of a lovely friendship -- with him, and with science (as long as it had a little math in it -- apparently, I'm better at it than I'd thought!).

It was also the beginning of a long road to developing my problem solving skills and improving my attitude. It's taken some time and hard work, and I've had some setbacks along the way, but now, when I catch myself thinking "I can't," I say to myself: "Oh, yeah? We'll see."

I most definitely used this approach when it came to doing what I love for a living! At first, I considered all the steps involved in having a successful jewelry making business and thought there was no way I could do it. But then I took this thought as a challenge. I decided to call my bluff. "You can't, huh?" I said out loud. "Fine. Then prove it." It was only once I'd put some actual time and effort into my dream that I would allow myself to decide whether it was impossible.

So far, I've found that making an informed decision is hard! But every day I work on it. I take intimidating tasks and break them up into tiny little steps. As tiny as jotting down ideas for a blog post, drafting an email, setting up an empty Etsy account. I push myself to take one or more little steps every day, depending on what else I've got going on in my life, and I congratulate myself after I complete each task. And then I keep pushing.

And even though this is tough for someone whose ability to problem solve is still developing, I've noticed something interesting. A snowball effect. The more I push my boundaries, the more I find myself doing things I never would have imagined. I have to say, these little successes feel wonderful! Just like my Chemistry class, they're an invaluable learning experience.

They also help me realize that often, "I can't" doesn't really mean "I can't." It can mean "I don't know how... just yet." It can mean "I don't know how to get started... just yet." It can mean "I'm scared." These thoughts are much easier to deal with. :)

So how about you? What things do you believe you "can't" do? What's one tiny step you could take towards finding out if this is really true?

Thanks, and have a sequintastic day!

PS: Also, today I was featured on The Beading Gem's journal! This makes me more excited than I can express in a blog post, and so I'd like you to picture me dancing around the living room with my Halloween socks and my pajamas on... which is what I was totally doing this morning. :)

PPS: I recently wrote an article for the Daily Muse on coping with a muscle injury. Check it out, and check out the Muse, itself! It's run by really kind, caring, sweet, wonderful people and has a lot of good stories.


  1. Another fantastic blog Sarah!

    You're a girl after my own heart! Every week I look forward to reading your blog and this one is very touching and very close to home.

    For years I had the same attitude, if you don't know how to do something leave it to someone who does, it changed when I asked myself "erm... duh... how do you think they learnt to do it?"

    At the age of 18 I thought I would rebel and do my university degree in Philosophy. I had never ever studied Philosophy. Realising I could teach myself to do it, I changed my attitude. Now if someone says I can't do something I'm like you, my words are simple "Oh yeah? Watch me!"

    Seeing the world through different eyes also made me a better problem solver, I now don't shy away from finding solutions because I know they are out there.

    Thank you for reminding me this morning that the word can't does not exist. I feel inspired!

    Jo x

  2. Lovely post hun, I've tried to live my adult life like this after a very shy childhood and potentially-wasted teenage years. In terms of creativity though this past year I have not heard 'can't' once, I think using the internet ie starting a blog (which absolutely terrified - still does sometimes - me) & shop and meeting lovely inspiring people like you has really put 'can't' in the grave. Much love Jennibellie x

  3. You've sealed it. It's not so much that I "can't" do something, but usually more that I'm too scared to try. I think also, I "can't" can mean that I'm too afraid of rejection that may come.

  4. Audrey,

    I hear you on the fear of rejection, and I think you're right. It's beyond scary to put ourselves out there, especially if we think other people will say "no" to us! I'll actually be making a post about rejection later on -- thanks for the reminder!

    Also, awesome writer story. The writer of Auntie Mame went through publishers alphabetically. He only got his acceptance when he got to the V section! Proof that rejection quite often isn't a reflection of talent. :)

  5. Jenny,

    I had a similar childhood! I'm so proud of you for breaking out of your shyness and going for it. You're superly talented, and I'm glad you're sharing that talent.

    RIP, "can't"!

  6. Jo,

    Aww! You're a sweetie. :)

    Very good point! Even the experts were, at some point, beginners -- they only became experts because they started to work and didn't start. And there's no reason that approach can't work for you or for me or for anyone else.

    Hurray for problem solving! I think it's one of the most important skills anyone can have, and fortunately, it really is something that can be developed.

  7. Oops! That was supposed to be didn't *stop.* Can you tell I just woke up? :)

  8. Sarah, what an awesome blog post!! Very well written and I could relate to the subject a great deal. Thank you!!

  9. Mary,

    Thanks so much! I'm glad it was something you could relate to.

    Also, thanks for following me! You're superbly talented, and I know you'll be a great blog friend. :)

  10. wow, I'm really behind on your posts! I will have to catch up more this weekend when I actually have time. :D

    I LOVE this post and it requires a more thoughtful read-through and answer than I can provide now so I will come back!

  11. Thanks, Andrea! I'd love to know what you think when you have time, and when you're done with the Day From Heck. :)

    Good luck today!!!


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