Anybody who has worked with me for more than a few months has probably heard me say the following on more than one occasion: “Don’t tell me why you can’t do it; tell me how you can do it.”
It’s become something of a mantra for me. Because no matter how thorny the problem, no matter how daunting the challenge, I’ve learned that the results are almost always better when approached through the doorway of possibility.
Part of the reason for that has to do with the way our brains are wired. Running through a litany of obstacles you assume can’t possibly be overcome lights up one information network in your brain. Inviting your mind to ponder various ways that a difficult problem could be solved lights up a whole different, and much broader, network.
In my own experience, I’ve found that latter network to be far more effective at producing great outcomes and solutions. And there’s solid science to back this up.
Consider the work of psychological researcher Barbara Fredrickson, PhD, author of Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive (Crown Archetype, 2009). Fredrickson demonstrates the many ways that actively nurturing a positive perspective creates a more expansive, creative mindset. She explains how this helps the brain generate better solutions and also helps us connect more productively with other people, thereby better leveraging their ideas and energy. (You can evaluate your own current positivity level at www.positivityratio.com.)
Of course, there’s an appropriate time and place to consider obstacles and to acknowledge dead ends. But if you begin going down that path too early, looking for all the reasons that a problem can’t be resolved, or that a goal can’t be achieved, your brain more or less shuts down any meaningful attempt to look for evidence to the contrary.
It’s like all your intelligence and energy become focused on rifling through a single, overstuffed file drawer labeled “Can’t Be Done.” Meanwhile, all the other drawers in this cabinet — including those files labeled “Creative Options” and “Daring Experiments” and “What If?” — remain totally ignored.
If you can discipline your mind to reach for those drawers first, you will probably be astonished at the riches you discover there — perhaps including keys to entirely new file cabinets with even more exciting collections of ideas.
Although I most often invoke my mantra at work, I think it can be equally helpful in addressing health challenges, relationship issues and the bigger changes we’d like to see in the world around us.
So often, when faced with an area of dissatisfaction in our own lives, we reflexively begin explaining why we can’t lose weight, or we can’t get along with our partner, or we can’t break unhealthy patterns that are holding us back. And when confronted with broken systems in our society — healthcare, the economy, our environment — we too often do the same thing.
I believe part of the reason all these problems seem so intractable is that too many of us have given in to our own hopelessness about them. Nobody particularly enjoys thinking about things that seem hopeless, and so the biggest and most important challenges in our midst often get far less creative attention than they deserve.
By asking ourselves how we can make a positive difference or take a step in the right direction — even if it’s a seemingly small one — we open up new realms of insight that allow us to see subsequent opportunities for exploration.
Almost instantly, we begin to feel a surge of hope and empowerment that completely changes how we relate not just to the challenge at hand, but to all the other challenges in our midst.
For all practical purposes, I believe thinking this way makes us smarter, more resourceful, more creative — and far more likely to come up with ingenious (or surprisingly simple) solutions.
I appreciate author Richard Bach’s quote: “Argue for your limitations, and sure enough, they’re yours.” My corollary is this: “Argue for your opportunities, and sure enough, anything is possible.”