Updated: Nov 3, 2021
Doing the thing you think you cannot do is a famous, inspiring quote from Eleanor Roosevelt, and one of my favorites. But what does dear Eleanor mean by this rather obscure statement? Here’s my take:
There is an endless list of things I think I cannot do. For example, I think I cannot play any musical instrument very well, do a hand stand, or perform surgery on any one for any reason. I also don’t feel any real interest in doing those things. But Eleanor didn’t say the things – she spoke singularly. She said the thing. One thing.
The thing is the pull of your passion you have been denying yourself. It’s what you truly want. It could be your profession, your big adventure, your satisfying relationship, your creative outlet, your expanded knowledge, your social advocacy. It’s most definitely not your safety and your security. Why? Because the thing you think you cannot do is the thing you think will expose you. It will expose you to failure, censure, poverty, loneliness, pain, and loss.
Cannot vs.Will Not
A good friend of mine is famous for affirming that when someone says they cannot do something, what they mean is they are unwilling to do something. What she’s addressing is the underlying choices we make every moment of every day. When we say things absolutely cannot be done, such as “I cannot talk right now,” what we mean is that we are unwilling to talk at the expense of something else we are doing. When we say, “I cannot have children,” what we mean is we are unable to conceive, and we are limiting the infinite possibilities of having children, such as the ability to adopt, or place ourselves in a role where we are nurturing children we are not biologically related to. We say, “It’s just not the same,” and it isn’t. But that does not mean we must deny the possibility. It means we are unwilling to because we have firm expectations about how something must happen in order for it to be valid.
Eleanor does not mince words. She didn’t say, “try,” or “attempt.” She said, “must,” and “do.” Of course, not everyone does. Lots of people drift, and wish, and talk, but never do. Those that don’t do usually find their reasons in outside circumstances. They had misfortune, or made debilitating mistakes, their past didn’t provide them with rich opportunity enough, events didn’t cooperate, and time was never their friend. To them, others have it easier. Oh well.
Why does Eleanor not let even these poor, unfortunate souls off the hook? I propose that Eleanor was not unrealistic, but even fact, far more pragmatic than the unfulfilled non-doers. Her demand for action assumes that the thing we think we cannot do is in fact our reason for being here in the first place. The “thing” is our purpose. It is our meaning. For each of us to do that thing is also our test. It is the only thing that can stretch us out of our comfort zone. And it is where we are most uncomfortable we have our greatest personal growth. Children do it naturally when they learn to crawl, to stand and to walk, then to talk, to read and so on.
Not “Or” But “And”
The temptation to deflect what we think we cannot do for the sake of what we are doing is epidemic. The trick is to embrace the fact that doing the daring thing is not only possible, it is possible at any time, in any situation, so long as we are willing to commit to it, practice it, and make it a priority above all else.
Now, stop for a minute. Did that statement “above all else” make you squirm? Did you feel guilty at the idea? Was your next thought, “But what about my child? My spouse? My job? My financial security?” You are not alone. That’s what stops most people. So what are the doers actually doing differently? They are willing to add their passion into the mix and make their life’s calling primary. The principle is no different than when a family adds a child. The parents cannot stop working (at least one parent) so they adapt around the new routine and they let smaller items take a lower priority.
The point here is this: we create space and time for what we value most highly. If you and your dream are truly important to you, then put your time and effort (and maybe money too) where your mouth is. If you don’t, it’s just talk, and people will stop believing you – especially yourself. That’s why you must do this.