More power than will

Engineers said it couldn't be done, but that didn't stop Henry Ford. Photo by IFCAR, public doman via Wikimedia Commons

Engineers said it couldn’t be done, but that didn’t stop Henry Ford.
Photo by IFCAR, public doman via Wikimedia Commons

“We have more power than will; and it is often by way of excuse to ourselves that we fancy things are impossible.” – Francois VI, Duc De la Rochefoucauld

“I am looking for a lot of men who have an infinite capacity to not know what can’t be done.”Henry Ford

“Ford decided to produce his now famous V-8 motor. He chose to build an engine with the entire eight cylinders cast in one block, and instructed his engineers to produce a design for the engine. The design was placed on paper, but the engineers agreed, to a man, that it was simply impossible to cast an eight-cylinder engine-block in one piece.  Ford replied,”Produce it anyway.”Napoleon Hill

Years ago, one of many doctors who evaluated Matt chose a dynamic assessment tool intended to measure not only what he was able to do, but what his potential for learning might be if given mediated instruction.  When she met to discus the results with us, she gave us some wise advice.  “Remove the word ‘can’t’ from your vocabulary and replace it with the phrase ‘has not yet learned to,’ especially when you are speaking where Matt can hear you.”

I think that’s good advice for almost any of us.  While there are things that are truly impossible for us, we are seldom asked or expected to do them. Far more often, we limit our own accomplishments by underestimating our capabilities, or being unwilling to do what it takes to surpass what we are currently able to achieve.  More than one historian has portrayed Ford’s legendary determination as sometimes crossing the line into ruthlessness.  Nevertheless, he changed history because of his refusal to believe conventional wisdom regarding what was possible.

It’s often hard to know where to focus our efforts for optimal results, but I agree with Rochefoucauld that we tend to excuse ourselves from doing what is difficult by using the word “can’t” instead of “won’t.”  Is there anything you need and want to do that you are dodging by saying “I can’t?”  Are there things you’d like to do that you haven’t tried, for fear of failure?

One year ago today:

Estimating our limits


  1. Oh, Julia, you call us so kindly to task!

    That said, your mention of engineers saying “can’t” made me giggle. I have heard that straight from many an engineer’s mouth! It’s part of the reason that companies like to hire younger team members; they haven’t yet experienced failure sufficient to cause them to throw in the towel.
    Then you discussed application of this concept to Matt, and that really brought the point home. Sometimes the can – can’t decision is a matter of life or death.
    Along the lines of not sharing suggestions of “can’t” with children, when he was young, my oldest was diagnosed with a mild autism spectrum disorder. Shortly after that, my mother reported to me that she was absolutely furious: she had heard his other grandmother tell someone that we just have to hope that he has “as normal a life as possible ….” Mom really helped a lot over the coming years (including helping to teach him to drive!), and I am happy to announce that my son has just signed his first lease for a house in San José, and he and some friends are moving in, this weekend!

    • Susan, I am so happy to read stories like this one! So many well-meaning negative diagnostics become self-fulfilling prophecies. I don’t think my sister would mind my sharing that when she was very young, she was diagnosed with a then-little-known genetic syndrome (unrelated to the one Matt has) about which doctors were just beginning to learn. At that time, doctors believed that, among myriad medical problems requiring repeat surgeries, she would have intellectual disability. My parents basically ignored the latter prognostication, and my sister went on to become the first person in our family to earn a Master’s degree. Long before Matt was born, my mother was giving me unspoken lessons on not setting inappropriate limits on ability, for myself or others. I am so happy your mother was able to see past the challenges and embrace the possibilities! The world needs such people!

  2. raynard

    Julia you reminded me when my wife and I are pulling in 2 different directions.Then last night on a family conference call with the slight distraction about pets. Our minds tend to get ” cluttered like a junkyard and” hoarders house”..Friday, the last holiday weekend to” almost unofficially end summer and I have to ” not be home and hope I get rest in their somewhere..” Never a dull moment “in the eye of the storm. Man I should of became ‘ a Air Force Hurricane Hunter.. Wait, they are being replaced by drones now. lol be blessed

    • Raynard, as a former bank teller I got out of that job just as many of those positions were among the first to be taken over by machines. I agree that it’s best to avoid any profession that starts outsourcing to drones! I just hope there is some sort of traffic control in place for all these airborne robots! I hope your summer winds down to a peaceful conclusion and you have a more stress-free autumn in store.

  3. singleseatfighterpilot

    As a matter of fact there is: I just had to back out on a friend (who is 8 years younger than I) with whom I was planning a Colorado bow hunt. We were planning to hike up an 11,000 foot mountain and harvest an elk with bow and arrow. Packing all the delicious meat out would have been the biggest challenge. I do not say, “I can’t”; but maybe I’ll be in shape to next year. btw – My friend hiked 1200 miles of the Appalachian Trail this summer. I guess you could say he was willing “to do what it takes to surpass. . .”

    • Eric, the few people I know who have done similar things have spent months training to prepare themselves for the physical challenges. This seems to make the difference between success and failure, in many cases. I was reading recently about the increasing number of people who want to climb Mount Everest, but not all make wise preparation, including the need to learn enough to enable making the right decision under pressure. Tragedy can result. I think you are wise to “count the cost” and say “I am not yet ready.” I’m also glad that you are diligent about protecting the harvest, a facet of hunting that many unacquainted with the practice do not understand. The hunters I have known are ardent conservationists who would not kill anything they were not planning to eat.

      • MaryAnn

        My uncle & his sons loved the challenge of bow hunting.

        This is a great insight into how you have championed Matt’s care all his life!
        It overwhelms me w/joy that you had your mother firmly planted in your corner.

        • Mary Ann, bow hunting is indeed totally different from using a rifle, and when one hunts with primitive bows (as my father and brothers did) it becomes even more of a challenge, truly worthy of the term “sport.” As Eric used to tell me, “the deer has a much better chance of getting away from you than you have of killing it.” I think he finds the idea of hunting an animal on its home turf where it has the logistical advantage WAY less offensive than eating animals that are herded into processing plants and systematically killed. I have to agree with him there, though I don’t care much for eating meat of any kind, for taste reasons rather than ethical ones.

          My mother has been a remarkable influence in many ways. Even now I am so thankful to have her here as she radiates emotional strength even as her physical body grows more and more feeble.

      • xoxox Good advice

        • Thank you Alys! 😀

  4. Dr. Nroman Vincent Peale. tells of a college professor, who had great influence over his students, he being one. When the professor entered the classroom, the first thing he did was to write on the board the word “Can’t.” The students in unison would shout to him, “Erase it!” He would reply: “Erase what?” The all yelled; “Erase the (‘t). So he did, and what was left was “Can.” He instilled in all his students the idea you speak of in your post today.
    And Dr. Peale, was a product of that belief. Of which many are better because of his ministry.

    • Alan, I love that story! I had never heard it. Thanks for sharing it. It reminds me of something one of Matt’s many wonderful occupational therapists told him once. She said that her father used to tell her, “Remember that the last four letters in the word ‘American’ are I CAN!” Matt has severe motor dyspraxia so he has to practice for hours to learn many seemingly simple motor tasks. Sometimes the frustration (for him and his teachers/therapists) becomes very difficult, so such affirmations are important for him – as they are for all of us! I think Dr. Peale’s writings have helped so many people. He has been influential in the lives of many who went on to achieve great things. Some are famous and some are people whose names we will never know, but all helped to make the world better.

      • As Matt, in my living with polio, I understand that there is unavoidable frustration that tries one’s patience; those going through it and those loved ones on the side lines.
        Yet any achievement gives meaningful purpose to the struggle leading to it.

        • Yes, I’ve often said that there are so many simple motor skills I will never take for granted after watching how hard Matt has worked to master them, even to a less-than-optimal degree. No achievements are sweeter than the ones we have worked for years to attain. Reward seems to be directly proportional to effort expended, in many areas of life. When I finish a long, difficult but worthwhile novel, I feel a real sense of success and completion much as when I would finished a paper in college or graduate school.

  5. Wow!… very encouraging 🙂

    • Thank you Merry! Hope you are having a nice weekend.

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