Editor’s Note: Ben Larson is the Director of Performing Arts at Antioch Church.
By Guest Blogger: Ben Larson
“Ninety-nine percent of failures come from people who have the habit of making excuses.”
― George Washington Carver
I have a confession to make: I am guilty of first degree failure. Everyone fails. It’s part of being a human being. But I have failed on purpose in the past, and I suspect that maybe you have too. “Premeditated” simply means “planned or strategized in advance.” It might seem unlikely to you, but sometimes we decide ahead of time that we are going to fail.
We not only give up before we’ve tried everything, but we also actively pursue and defend our failure before we have failed. In other words, we fail premeditatedly. I’m convinced that I’m not the only person who’s ever done this, so the following is what I’ve learned about how to avoid premeditated failure and when to say “I can’t.”
Premeditated failure begins with an “I can’t” phrase: “I can’t finish this paper by midnight.” “I can’t be an artist and take care of my family.” “I can’t stop human trafficking.”
“I can’t” phrases often sound irrefutably true. But what about when they’re not? We’ve all heard children say “I can’t” when we know they really can. How do we know when our “I can’ts” (abbreviated ICs from now on) are true or not? Before we can do that, we need to make a distinction between descriptive ICs and prescriptive ICs.
Descriptive ICs logically describe reality: “I’m paralyzed and can’t walk.” “I can’t afford to buy a million dollar house.” “I can’t fly.” They are true statements that describe objective, cold hard reality.
Prescriptive ICs emotionally describe how we feel about reality or perceive reality. “I can’t take another step up this mountain.” “I can’t beat this video game.” “I can’t find time to write my screenplay.” These ICs describe our feelings, rather than reality. A more truthful description of reality might be: “I’m so tired and miserable I don’t want to take another step up this mountain.”
I’ve found an easy way to tell whether an IC is descriptive or prescriptive: the gun test. I ask myself, “If someone held a gun to my head and told me to do this, would I still say ‘I can’t’?” I could definitely take one or even a hundred more steps up a mountain if my life depended on it. And if I couldn’t walk, I’d crawl.
The Danger of Premeditation
Prescriptive ICs are powerful. Their power comes from their ability to positively or negatively influence our motivation and the effort we’re willing to put into something. If we believe our task is impossible, we’ll never really give it our full energy or attention. By convincing ourselves that something is impossible, we make it seem like a waste of time to even try.
Don’t end up playing defense for failure.
I once had a stressed out friend tell me that she couldn’t wrap up a simple project by her deadline, which was almost a month away. She gave me excuse after lame excuse, even though I knew if I could just get her to sit down and work on it, she’d have it finished in a couple of hours.
Once we say “I can’t” out loud, we are invested in proving ourselves right…we’ve committed ourselves to fail. Even if we later realize that we can finish on time, there’s a part of us that wants to fail, just because we don’t want to be wrong.
Pretty silly, huh? But people do this all the time. The problem isn’t in saying “I can’t”…it’s what we say “I can’t” about.
Prescriptive ICs aren’t always a bad thing: only unhealthy or untrue ICs are a bad thing. We can harness the power of ICs for good!
Check out these quotes from three of the greatest achievers in their respective fields:
“I can accept failure; everyone fails at something. But I can’t accept not trying.”
– Michael Jordan
“I know God won’t give me anything I can’t handle. I just wish he didn’t trust me so much.”
– Mother Teresa
These three outliers seem to have discovered the power of prescriptive ICs to strengthen their resolve, keep them anchored, and prevent them from giving up. Have you ever hung out with someone whose driving IC is “I can’t give up” or “I can’t lose” or “I can’t let myself fail”? They’re exhausting to be around. And they’re usually raging successes.
Take another look at the three examples of descriptive ICs I gave: “I’m paralyzed and can’t walk.” “I can’t afford to buy a million dollar house.” “I can’t fly.” There are exceptions to all three. Beverly Kearney was told she would never walk, and now she’s a winning track and field coach. Check out what she had to say in her interview:
“When they told me I was paralyzed it went in one ear and out the next,” Kearney said. “I never doubted for one moment that I was going to walk.”
She rejected “I can’t walk” and chose another IC: “I can’t stay in this wheelchair.” Oprah Winfrey was born in poverty to a single teenage mother and is now one of the highest paid celebrities in America. And I don’t think the Wright Brothers would be too impressed by my third example.
Can’t We Do Anything?
As Christians, we should be especially careful about saying “I can’t”:
“I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.”
– Job 42:2
“No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it”.
– I Corinthians 10:13
I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
– Philippians 4:13
When it comes to following God, part of having faith is trusting that God will make possible what he has called us to do. That doesn’t mean we’ll be able to anything we want, but rather that we’ll be able to do everything God asks us to do, no matter how impossible it seems. As my friend Brandon likes to say: “Where God guides, God provides.”
Don’t Get the Wrong Idea
This has not been a post about the “power of positive thinking.” Thinking that something is possible doesn’t alter reality and make it possible. Rather, it better aligns us with the truth, and strengthens our motivation and willpower.
We have to realize that when we make statements like “I can’t,” even in the privacy of our own mind, we are making a commitment. We are committing ourselves to either succeed or fail, and we should only tell ourselves the truth and what ought to be true.
If your “I can’t” isn’t true or isn’t what ought to be true, find a different one! Don’t find yourself guilty of first degree failure.