An Example of Shifting “Can’t” Thinking

In the 90’s I did a considerable amount of training/coursework around shifting mindset to achieve success. My wife and I were both trained as teachers, and I got some of the most important lessons I’ve ever learned. Here’s one:

On one particular March day in New Hampshire, we were preparing for a new course, and I was assisting the instructor. Outside there was not much snow left, and what was left had solidified. Before the workshop, the instructor handed out tasks for the assistants. She asked me to make a snowman to greet the attendees. Her husband (also trained as a teacher) blurted out in passing, “that’s not going to happen”. I grabbed a shovel and went outside.

Anyone who’s ever built a snowman knows that the process requires sticky snow. No sticky snow, no snowman. A pile of hard pack nearly-ice snow next to a building stairway is just about the last kind of snow one would possibly ever want in order to make a snowman. I had a problem.

I poked around the pile with the shovel—it was rock hard. I was frustrated, confused and a little resentful; I wanted to give up. I mentally collected allies (the husband) in defense of the impossibility of the task. I got angry (try mushing together a ball of snow from hard pack without cussing).

But here I was, an assistant at a workshop on possibility, and on eliminating obstacles to goal achievement, and that the first and largest obstacle is always the mental obstacle of “it can’t be done”; so I was not about to go back inside until I had built a snowman.

Standing there, incredulous, angry, frustrated, resentful, but unwilling to accept “impossible”, I stood there, and got quiet. I poked around. Then I had an idea: instead of rolling snow balls to make a snowman, what if I carved the body and head out of this solid pile of pack? Just like how Michelangelo removes marble to reveal the masterpiece underneath, so too I could remove hard pack to reveal a snowman. I was able to scrape away enough to come up with 3 snowman balls and create a terrific March snowman, surely the only one in town!

Not only was I able to return triumphantly to tell the instructor that her snowman was made, but the experience became a perfect illustration of what we were teaching that day: shifting one’s mindset from “can’t” to receptivity to solutions. Once I shifted my mindset to being open to possibilities, a brand new thought came to me: I can make a snowman by removing snow. Had I remained “certain it can’t happen”, I surely wouldn’t have made the snowman.

It is one thing to hear such a story and think, “yeah, I get it”, but actually experiencing it— going through all the negative emotions and coming out on the other side with a solution— gave me a visceral understanding of what it feels like to be stuck in lack-of-possibility thinking and the experience that I need not give in to it. Now I recognize it, whereas before I did not.

One footnote, it is a testament to the persistence of these negative habits of mind that even a trained teacher (right before a workshop on this very topic!) still gave strength to “it can’t be done” thinking!

There are tons of great quotes about this, here’s a couple of my favorites:

“Each problem has hidden in it an opportunity so powerful that it literally dwarfs the problem. The greatest success stories were created by people who recognized a problem and turned it into an opportunity.” —Joseph Sugarman

“In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.” —Albert Einstein

The lesson of these quotes goes beyond the simple observation that difficulties are solvable. They are instructive to us: to allow difficult situations to stop us is an ineffective use of our brains.

When fixating on the problem, it is hard for solutions to come in. Release the fixation on the problem to become receptive to solutions.

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2 Responses to An Example of Shifting “Can’t” Thinking

  1. Jeanne T says:

    Great post. It resonates with my daily life, and especially in my interaction with a frequently obstinate “I can’t…” teenager whose glass is frequently half full when presented with obstacles. Your closing comments are what prompted my response–they ring true and deserve the boldface type. I think I’ll bring “Release the fixation on the problem to become receptive to solutions” home with me tonight. Thanks, Dan!

  2. dpouliot says:

    I’m so glad you liked it!

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