When “I Can’t” is a Fair Assessment of the Situation

They say that the most productive people in the world don’t have the word’s “I can’t” in their vocabulary. When they’re asked to jump, they don’t even ask, “how high,” they just jump as high as they can and try harder next time. Whether or not they have a sociopathic and delusional belief in their own abilities is irrelevant, confidence, even over-confidence, begets success in many cases.

I think back to myself as a little girl and I wonder if she believed in herself – that if she believed if she worked through problems instead of getting frustrated and giving up in a manner of seconds – she’d be an entirely different person today. She didn’t realize that while extreme intellect enables a certain kind of success, not everyone needs to be a genius to change the world.

Little girl me flunked out of her smart kids program in second grade because she grew too frustrated with confusing logic problems and would rather doodle and daydream. Little girl me saw math and science as that thing my dad liked and he clearly wasn’t happy or a person I’d want to be like, so why bother? Little girl me sat and watched the second hand tick by in just about every class I had, waiting for the years to pass by.

My therapist this week said something that struck me in its crystal clarity – those who dwell in the past are depressed. Those who think too much about the future are anxious. It’s best we focus on now. And that is what being mindful is all about.

Then, today, a headline in the New York Times caught my eye – “The Cost of Daydreaming.” The author is a woman in her 60s who considers how much of her life was spent wasted lost in what could be, versus accepting and enjoying what is.

“Ever since I could remember, I had feared being found wanting,” Gornick writes. “If I did the work I wanted to do, it was certain not to measure up; if I pursued the people I wanted to know, I was bound to be rejected; if I made myself as attractive as I could, I would still be ordinary looking.”

Oh, how I can relate! How much safer it is to wrap ourselves in this cloak of disappointment in the now, with all this hope wrapped up in the future. But future is the now of tomorrow. The future will be a now sometime and it will never be enough. I don’t want to get to 60 and realize I’ve wasted my life daydreaming away time.

The essay continues… “Around such damages to the ego a shrinking psyche had formed: I applied myself to my work, but only grudgingly; I’d make one move toward people I liked, but never two; I wore makeup but dressed badly. To do any or all of these things well would have been to engage heedlessly with life — love it more than I loved my fears — and this I could not do. What I could do, apparently, was daydream the years away: to go on yearning for “things” to be different so that I would be different.”

I am already exhausted by yearning. There is some god-awful romanticism to wanting versus having – an art enabled by privilege-fueled guilt cradled by insecurity. The future is this amorphous globule which is so fucking pretty from the perspective of the hear and now, or ugly but salvageable with the grace of time. Then the future zips right up to our present and are we at all the better for it?

Elon Musk, a perfectly imperfect human (and some reporter’s lunch with him.)

I daydream that I’m actually as brilliant as Elon Musk – but I didn’t have quite the right upbringing to set me up to access the brilliance. I know it isn’t true. I was creating websites with a dozen too many iFrames at 14, not building computer programs with lightening speed at 9. We both had pretty insufferable childhoods and hated the structure of school equally. But Elon spent his time voraciously devouring science fiction and fantasy. Something stopped me from reading when I was younger – this strong anti-authoritarian rebellion which made it impossible to given in to anything that I deemed too “adult” or “educational.”

Dwelling in the past leads to depression. True. There are so many problems to solve in the world. In the little time I have left on earth – with my god-given abilities, or lack there of, what can I do to fix them? Or is the best I can do hold my breath and stay out of the way? And does it really matter – my inner Nietzsche rears his ugly head – tells me I can’t do a damned thing about any of the problems and even if we make interplanetary habitation possible, we’re still destined for nothingness as soon as the chance of the universe divides by zero.

Returning to present time, not future worry (anxiety) or past reflection (depression), I ponder on now. What am I now? What drives me now? I give myself permission to care about how I feel in this moment. And I feel broken down. I feel weak in my skin, cut up by a life of scripting persuasion and failing to do the exposition justice.  And I HATE the feeling of being unable to do something, but even more so I hate the feeling of not knowing what it is I can do. It is remarkably refreshing to say “I can’t” as long as it’s true and one can accept this and move on.

Elon Musk doesn’t say I can’t. That’s why he’s Elon Musk and I’m not. And I don’t have to be Elon Musk or Tina Fey or Barak Obama to lead a meaningful life filled with the wonder of the present. And that starts with saying “I Can’t,” and it’s time to start down the path of whatever it is where I can proudly one day say “I Can.”

 

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