An Example of Shifting ”Can’t” Thinking

Peter Fischli and David Weiss, Snowman at the Art Institute of Chicago. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

In New England 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 morning we were preparing for a new course and I was assisting the instructor. There was not much snow left outside, and what was left had solidified. Before the workshop, the instructor handed out tasks. She asked me to make a snowman to greet the attendees. Her husband (also trained as a teacher) blurted out, “that’s not going to happen.” I grabbed a shovel and went outside.

Sticky snow is required to build a snowman, right? No sticky snow, no snowman. A pile of hardpack, nearly ice snow, built up over the months from shoveling off the stairs glared back at me daringly, as if to say, “I’d like to see you make a snowman out of me.”

I poked around the pile with the shovel—it was rock hard. I was frustrated, confused, and beginning to feel resentful; I wanted to give up. I mentally collected allies (the husband) in defense of the impossibility of the task. I got angry (you 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.” 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 got quiet. I poked around. Then I had an idea: instead of rolling snowballs to make a snowman, what if I carved the body and head out of this solid pile of pack? Michelangelo removes marble to reveal the masterpiece underneath, and 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, certainly 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 “it can’t be done.” Once I shifted my mindset to being open to possibilities, a thought I had never had before in my life came to me: I can make a snowman by removing snow. Had I remained certain it can’t happen, I know I 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!

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

It is hard for solutions to come in when fixated on the problem. Release the fixation to become receptive to solutions.

2 comments

  1. 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!

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