Waste not, want more

No variations on a theme.

Anything I set my mind to – Part 1

I’ve always felt conflicted about that child-encouraging adage: “you can do anything you set your mind to [doing].”

At the risk of sounding like Ms. Negative, can you really?

On the one hand, I think that the support and faith that this phrase reflects is fantastic. I certainly wish someone had taken me aside and told me this when I was 5, 8, 10, 12, 16, 22 – repeatedly. [This is a rare case of me not blaming my parents. This was so far outside their cultural experience, I could not expect it. But if someone had taken it upon themselves to let me know, I would have been quite pleased.] I truly believe that being told this has empowered people around me, given them confidence and drive to pursue difficult, mysterious, and seemingly out of reach things, and find success in that pursuit. If we set a goal, pursue it doggedly, take initiative, share our passions, there is a great deal we can accomplish.

On the other hand, I think that treating “you can do anything” like dogma can get us into some disconcerting thought patterns. Some people face extraordinary barriers and some do not. Many who do have barriers overcome them fantastically. They contribute to their community and the world in ways we would have never imagined. But some don’t. Maybe I’m being too black and white about this but, isn’t there an implication that if we believe anyone can do anything they set their mind to, and they don’t achieve that goal, that their failure is somehow their fault? That if that person had just tried harder, they too could have been a star on the path of their choosing? In revering those who can, are we shaming those that can’t or don’t?

To give a concrete example, I was talking with a colleague of mine about people with disabilities who have to advocate for themselves for the accommodations they require to succeed academically. Some are able to do so and in the best case scenario, are accommodated accordingly. One can easily recognize their ability to overcome adversity. In some cases, others who were not in a position to so advocate, struggle more to do so, or give up on accommodation entirely, are not given the opportunity or are seen as having failed in some way. We may think that they don’t have the valiant spirit necessary to succeed.

Is it helpful to tell a person with severe depression that they’ll feel better if they make it their goal to do so when just getting out of bed may be a daily struggle that person faces? Can we help but wonder if another person in a similar situation was able to do it, why can’t they?

I  suppose it’s complicated. I suppose the real message is that we should set our sights high. I suppose we should similarly be able to accept when we fail, or at least forgive rather than blame ourselves. As humans, we have limitations. Where do they fit in?


October 11, 2011 - Posted by | Bad TV References, Childhood Complaints, Doing it the hard way | , , ,


  1. This is a powerful and important post, Rose–especially for me.

    During the years I was so, so sick with bipolar disorder, my therapist very lovingly told me that I would likely never recover. The “crazy” thing was that she was wrong–as I am now so near normal, no one who didn’t know me well would ever know I stilll carry this diagnosis. However, what was hardest for me when I was so ill was that I kept beating myself up for not functioning better. My therapist telling me this somehow freed me up to be less critical of myself and may have, in the long run, allowed me to develop the self-empathy that allowed me to, indeed, recover.

    You are asking some great questions, my friend!


    Comment by Kathryn McCullough | October 12, 2011 | Reply

    • Oh, Kathy. It sounds just awful. I’m so glad you now are where you are.

      It’s interesting to think that accepting a “new normal” could allow a person to scale back their goals and actually achieve them, then get further than they would have if they were daunted by perfection in the first place. Dream big or dream a little at a time.

      Comment by Rose | October 12, 2011 | Reply

  2. […] me. My last post, Anything I set my mind to – Part 1, was so titled because I had a clear, sequel type idea that I wanted to explore in a follow up post […]

    Pingback by Anything I set my mind to – Part 2 « Waste not, want more | October 14, 2011 | Reply

  3. “Setting your mind” to something does have the “American Dream” feeling to it, no? We can all earn 1 gazillion dollars, if only we try hard enough!
    I think this adage only stretches so far and ignores systemic biases/discrimination in our society. Too often, we take the one (and possibly the exceptional) example of somebody overcoming EVERYTHING to get somewhere, but do we also acknowledge the many people who don’t make the cut? Hardly. It’s selective cognition at its finest!

    Comment by Dana | October 31, 2011 | Reply

    • I guess that’s the lesson, there is no absolute, and this phrase is no different. For a person who already qualifies everything, that sucks a little. But it sucks less than holding everyone to some insane standard of gumption and perseverence.

      Comment by Rose | October 31, 2011 | Reply

  4. […] Malcolm Gladwell could be seen as controversial if anyone had cared/commented I hazard a guess that my most controversial post may be the one in which I question our western, self-affirming, just believe and you will have […]

    Pingback by 7 Ways to Leave Your Lover Wondering What You’ve Been Doing with Your Time « Waste not, want more | January 5, 2012 | Reply

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