What Is the Thing You Think You Cannot Do?

“You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. The danger lies in refusing to face the fear, in not daring to come to grips with it. You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
~ Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt, age 14 or 15

What is the thing you think you cannot do, as a writer, perhaps, but also as a person who is living the only life given to us, at the only time we have to live it?

Not the thing you know you cannot do. I know I cannot be a professional basketball player. Or, at this point in my life (if ever), a world class mathematician. Or, with my faulty vision, a fighter pilot. To be honest, I really don’t want to do any of those things—until I start thinking about how I cannot do them.

I also don’t mean the things that, while not technically impossible, are extremely improbable so that the risks and sacrifices would hardly outweigh the chances of success or any small enjoyment along the way. Is there a possibility that I could completely change writing genres and become a Broadway playwright? It’s not impossible, but I also know I don’t really want to try, not out of fear, but from lack of preparation and interest (of course, like being a basketball player or fighter pilot, I only think I want to be a playwright once I think I have lost my chance).

No, I’m talking about the things you think—assume or believe—you can’t do, but that somewhere, buried deep, you do want to do, things that you know you have a shot at doing well and that will bring you happiness (see Cyndi Briggs’ terrific post on figuring out what makes us happy), even if you don’t always admit it to yourself. You know what I’m talking about. Those dreams that remain only dreams because the thought of taking the first step terrifies you. Or maybe the first step would be okay, but at some point down the road there is a step that keeps you from ever packing your bags and setting on your way in the first place.

Ask Yourself

  • What is the worst thing that could happen if you took that first step, just to see how it feels?
  • What feels worse, hiding from the fear forever or the moment of uncertainty when you turn to face it?
  • What if you could become used to the fear, so that, like an itch you refuse to scratch, it eventually diminishes?
  • What if every day you put off taking that first step, the fear grows stronger?
  • What if you were meant to wait until right now to step forward, even if you don’t know where you are going?
  • What if you have nothing to regret?
  • What are you waiting for?

This week I took my first graduate class in 20 years, and I was scared. My friends asked if I’d had any of the old school dreams–not being able to find the class, not having prepared for a test, oversleeping for an exam. Strangely, I didn’t, but the moments before the class felt like one of those dreams. No one was outside the locked classroom at the time when class was supposed to start. There was a note that a class was meeting in another classroom, just for that day (it took awhile to realize it was not our class). Then, as the other students began to gather outside the room, I noticed how young they were…and that they all knew each other.

When the professor arrived to unlock the door, I can honestly say that my stepping into the room was looking fear in the face. It was just like the first day of high school, coming from a small, two-room country grade school to a county-wide high school in town where most of the other students had known each other for all their lives, and where I was terrified I would be examined and found lacking.

The class was amazing. The professor and other students couldn’t have been more welcoming. The material is engaging and exactly what I’ve been craving. The fear was all in my imagination.

One step down.

What is the thing you think you cannot do?

6 thoughts on “What Is the Thing You Think You Cannot Do?

  1. Hi! I can honestly say that I’ve reached the point in my life where there’s nothing I think I can’t do or accomplish, if I set my mind to it and then devote the time and energy, and never give up. Sometimes my estimated time frames are off (and sometimes off considerably), but nothing stops me anymore when I seriously believe something is possible.

    Frankly, there are days when I wonder if life might not be a lot simpler if I could just say to myself, “Cheri, that is never going to happen, so get rid of the to-do lists and let yourself relax.” Such words will never come out of my mouth, though, or even run through my head. And I suspect I’ll be working on something I believe I can do, no matter what happens, until the very end.

    Thanks for the great question. Very thought-provoking! All the best. –Cheri

    • Cheri, what an inspiring response! I struggle with estimated time frames, too (usually severely underestimating how much time a project will take).

      I see on your blog that you attended the Writer’s Digest conference. It sounds as though you enjoyed it. I haven’t been to many writers’ conferences (and no national ones), but I always come away feeling super motivated.

      Warm wishes,

  2. My experience as a non-traditional student during my Masters program was wonderful. A great experience. Stressful, yeah, but we survived, somehow…

    • Rob, your reply and experience hearten me! I often teach non-traditional age students, and I love their engagement and sense of purpose. I’m lucky that I’m doing this when our son is in college, so at least I’m not juggling daily parenting at the same time.

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