“Nothing is impossible” is perhaps the most popular cultural dictum in recent times. It propounds how we can and should push ourselves ahead and beyond our imaginary boundaries. The belief in the potential of an individual to achieve anything and everything is so empowering. “Growth mindset” propels one to break through all the obstacles and overcome all challenges, both real and imaginary,. “Be Positive” is the all-encompassing mantra eulogized by all motivation and self-help gurus.
It is important that you believe in yourself; believe that you can do something in order to be able to do it. You are what you think you are. “The mind is everything. What you think you become.”, says Buddha. It all makes perfect sense, because it’s all in the mind.
But. Yes, there is a “but”.
Let me stretch this idea a little bit.
Believing that nothing is impossible is a great start. Once you believe that you can, all you need to do is work hard and smart enough to achieve whatever it is that you set out to achieve. The individualistic culture and the motivation space does not underplay the need for “hard and smart work” anywhere but it doesn’t explicitly call out and emphasize it “enough” either. There is certain misguided sense of entitlement that is being propagated here. And this sense of entitlement also implies that not realizing our dreams is a big failure.
Even if all these cards are played right, things may not fall into place always. We are operating in a space with too many variables at play, the interactions of which are way too many to make sense of, let alone measure and track. The bottom line is, we live in an uncertain world. To expect and believe that a certain intention and effort will definitely and always lead to a particular outcome in the midst of so much variability (both internal and external), seems to me, like naiveté at best. On the surface, such assumption doesn’t seem unreasonable at all. Because we succumb to “survivor bias”. When all we hear about is stellar success stories, and not hear so much about failures or all that in between, our perception becomes skewed. But when you actually look at the entire picture and get the right statistic, you suddenly see the trees instead of just the forest.
A natural corollary to the slogans “nothing is impossible”, “you are the creator of your own destiny”, is the implication that you are responsible for everything that happens in your life. These also espouse the idea of “free will”. In this complex world, how much can you be really in total control of what’s happening to you and around? How much can you steer as per your will? It depends, I would say. A great deal, for certain things, to some extent for others. But I don’t think anyone can have total control of or can take total responsibility for everything. While the sense of control is exhilarating, the feeling of responsibility is acutely burdensome. “With great power comes great responsibility”, says Uncle Ben. One cannot separate those two.🙂
So, what happens when, due to the very nature of life and/or as a result of complex interactions of myriad components and variables, things don’t work out and you fail or you fall short. If the culture dictates that “nothing is impossible”, how do you explain the failure? Is it all your fault now? Are you resigned to conclude that your best is not good enough? These are some very unpleasant thoughts. You see where I’m going with this?
The happiness research has a technique to handle setbacks – “self-compassion”. Treat yourself with the same compassion that you would provide to a near and dear one in a similar situation. But in my opinion, it doesn’t address the issue completely. It’s just a dressing to alleviate the pain, not the medicine that will cure the wound. So, what else do I think will help?
Humility. Shedding the skin of self-importance and realizing that you are just one element in this giant complex interconnected system makes it easier for you. Am I implying that you be complacent and shirk the responsibility for your life, for what you become completely? Hell, no.
I would resort to The Gita: “Do your duty and be righteous. Don’t worry about the fruits (results).”. There is a lot of wisdom in this philosophy. Sometimes, no matter what you do, you can’t make things happen. There could be several reasons. Should you give up, or just prod along refusing to accept the reality? How do you know when to give up? With all these cultural notions, how can you make yourself give up and still be at peace with yourself and with life? Alas,these questions are not always easy to answer, irrespective of your guiding philosophy!