One of my crowning moments of glory in business was when I trusted the wrong person and ended up penniless with two kids and an extraordinarily angry wife. I say that’s one of my crowning moments as it played a huge part in shaping the rest of my career. I remember a range of feelings I had at the time, primarily negative. Of all the emotions running through me, the one that stands out upon reflection was the feeling that “I can’t get through this”. This is such a powerful thing to say to oneself as it pretty much guarantees that yes, you’re right, you can’t.
I’ve found the word “can’t” is a nightmare to deal with in general. When we look at what we can or can’t do, the truth is there are few things we can’t do and a majority of things we could possibly do if we altered some factors at play – mainly in terms of mindset. If or when we fail at something, it is the way we think that enables that moment to be a gateway to better things…but more commonly we create a negative barrier and don’t allow success to escalate. Failure itself isn’t the trigger, it’s how we respond to failure that does it. Every time.
In my recent book Powered By Change (http://poweredbychange.com), which has miraculously landed in the Sunday Times Bestseller list recently, I look at the power of our thinking about change in some detail and the conclusion is; we have an ongoing choice as to how we respond to events, including our own opinion that we simply can’t get through this, or can’t be a success in general. In the past, I’ve also written about “Business Poisons” within which the word “can’t” is a celebrity in its own right. Allow me to draw on those resources for you and look a bit deeper.
The fact is, we can’t breathe underwater, unaided. We can’t fly either. In fact, there are a number of things we simply cannot do. However, I suspect that most of our usage of the word ‘can’t’ isn’t actually related to things we literally cannot do. This presents the inaccurate use of the word can’t as a poison, a misconception based on incorrect reasoning. The main problem is that when we say, “Oh I can’t do that”, the thing we are speaking about gets compartmentalised in our brain, adjacent to being able to breathe underwater, unaided. Happy bedfellows, languishing in the vortex of the un-doable. Our mental filing system then requires extraordinary effort to switch folders from ‘things I can’t do’ to ‘things I possibly can do’, which is why, after being told by someone that they can’t do something, the work is so tremendously difficult in changing their opinion.
Our attachment to failure equalling an inability is one that has the most extreme effect on progress, development and innovation. Stuff that makes people and organisations grow. However, “can’t” is built into our language so deeply that we say it without realising and then the poisonous gremlin takes over. It sits waiting for you to say things like “I can’t” or “We can’t”, then simply opens a mental drawer and plops the thing that you are talking about into it. Job done. It takes a nanosecond to do, and sometimes a lifetime to undo, if at all. If you’re lucky, the folder system you have in your head has weak locks, meaning it’s easier to re-file. But remember, weak locks are bad at keeping things in or out of anywhere, so you may be more susceptible to self-doubt.
In my opening story of being totally and utterly screwed over in business, losing pretty much everything in the process, I was in the mindset of, “I can’t fix this. I can’t make things better.” But, over an arduous five-year period, I realised that I could. And I did. So how can one move from a can’t to a can? Here’s a quick and dirty checklist to enable the gateway to success that failure allows.
- You need to define exactly what the thing is that you may or may not be able to do. Define it in exact terms. For me it was, on a human level, to be able to house, feed and support my family whilst not losing my mind in anxiety, stress and/or depression in the process. On a business level, it was to create an even better organisation than I had ever done before. On a moralistic level, it was to enable others to also reach their own potential.
- Forget the tactics, forget the ways and means – first address a cold, hard question: “Is it humanly possible to do this thing?”. If the answer is no, your challenge changes from one of struggle to one of acceptance and adaptation. If the answer is yes, your journey begins, but it may be a 2000 or 20,000-day journey.
- Now you’ve established what the thing is and whether it is possible, it’s now time to map out the separate steps you would need to take so you can start your journey. These steps should be achievable but you may find there are several sub-steps or dependencies. Then, you just have to get busy. If you have a barrier, refresh your answers to the points above. Remember, provided what you are trying to achieve is literally possible, it is down to you how successful you are.
For me, the above process dug me out of a very dark hole and into what could arguably be termed as success in business and life. Since then, I’ve encountered many more challenges. Even as I’m writing this, I’m facing a theoretically difficult challenge involving someone in my business environment. I could (as the other person would so desperately wish), struggle and collapse – however I’m far from reacting in that way.
My choice of response is based on the possible. The possibility of justice, the possibility of progress and the possibility of what is right.
Life is too short to eliminate the possible.