If You Really Want to Know What I Have Against “Motivational Experts,” I’m Glad You Brought the Subject Up

Four of the most egregiously unfair and misused words in this language are “You can do it.” And I’m guilty at abusing them, too.

Because in using those words to urge our children or employees or students or anyone else forward in the performance of a task they’ve not done before or at which they are performing poorly, we are often claiming ownership of information and insight that, in most cases, is simply absent.

Who really knows exactly what your brain is capable of? I certainly don’t? And how could you possibly know what my brain is capable of? You shouldn’t presume to know. And neither of us should be telling each other, or anyone else, that we can do something unless there is evidence that this might be so, and even then there are important intermediate steps that usually get left out. We can call it The 3-Way Test of Achievability.

• Would you like to do it?
• How do you think you might best go about it?
• Is it worth the effort that is going to be required?

When and only when we have affirmative answers to those questions, do you and I have any reasonable right to offer someone the encouragement that “You can do it.”

In the past few days, I’ve had at least three experiences reminding me that there are things that, in all likelihood, I can’t do. At least, in all likelihood, I’m not going to do them, and so, on these subjects, I fail The 3-Way Test of Achievability.

1) Sitting in our neighborhood deli, Sherry and I were still waiting on our food when the private envelope of our morning conversation was suddenly pierced by a sheet of drawing paper. On the paper, with remarkable fidelity to visages we both were used to observing in the bathroom mirror, were two people seated at a deli restaurant table, having their morning conversation. When we looked up, the artist was beaming at us. He’d been sitting at the table across the aisle, sketching away, unnoticed by either of us. I’m quite sure I’ll never be able to do what he had just done because my brain doesn’t work that way. He said his gift was something he had discovered in himself. He doesn’t use it professionally but, wanting to do something with it, he does things like draw unsuspecting strangers in their morning conversation and spring their portraits on them.

2) One of our local high school seniors has taken the three-hour exam that’s supposed to measure a high school student’s chance of academic success in the first year of college—the dread SAT—twice . . . and achieved a perfect score both times. Asked to explain how he does this, the best he could offer was, “It helps to remember what you have studied.” I don’t need to test this talented mind to be very suspicious that he can’t help but remember what he has studied. This is just the way his brain works. I’ve always marveled at how quickly and totally my brain erases what I’ve just studied once the immediate reason for cramming has been satisfied. I’m quite sure I was not designed to achieve perfect scores on the SAT. Not even once, much less twice.

3) At a used book sale the other day, I spotted a thin, jacket-less little volume titled Mind’s Eye of Richard Buckminster Fuller. There was a time when I spent a lot of time devouring Bucky Fuller’s writings—and pretending to understand most of what I’d just read. Two things in life I’m pretty certain of: (1) Buckminster Fuller was a genius. (2) Virtually no one really understands very much of what he had to say. A really gifted mind can understand a part of it. But by the time you understand that part, Bucky is off rattling the tea cups in some other authority’s buffet. Here, though, was a guy—Bucky’s patent attorney!—ready to show us how Mr. Fuller’s mind worked. So I snatched up Donald W. Robertson’s book (it’s only 109 pages long) and figured I was about to be handed the secret to deciphering one of the 20th Century’s most creative intellects. But no such luck. All that attorney Robertson knew was how to describe approximately how Bucky happened to think up an invention so it stood a chance of being awarded a patent. (Robertson’s applications weren’t always successful because sometimes the patent office attorneys didn’t understand Robertson well enough to understand if Bucky, on that, occasion could be understood).

Three more things in life I’m pretty sure of. No matter how many times you tell me “you can do it!” I’ll never be able to (1) draw a detailed likeness of you eating breakfast that will cause you to say, “That’s amazing!” (2) take the SAT and get a perfect score (once, much less twice) or (3) be able to look at much of anything with the kind of unique visioning capabilities of one of modern times’ most fascinating minds.

The moral of the story: Please save your encouragement for my doing something reasonably doable, and something that I really want to do (and maybe that the world would benefit from my doing), and I’ll return the favor. Thanks!

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