The “you can do anything you set your mind to” phenomenon must be a fairly recent one.
I say that only because I’m trying — and struggling — to imagine too many people even a couple of hundred years ago thinking in this way, let alone in the centuries before that. Oh, sure, there were rulers who definitely operated with this kind of grandiose mindset — and it didn’t hurt that were treated more like deities than like human beings — but the common person?
The common person has — traditionally — been acutely aware of their limitations. They have felt from deep within their core that without extraordinary luck, their lot in life had pretty much been decided before they were born. Thankfully, this is becoming untrue for an increasing number of people, as we move — ever haltingly — towards greater social mobility around the world. We have a long way to go, but at least we’re going.
Personally, I both love and hate “you can do anything you set your mind to.”
I love it because for the people born into the most testing of circumstances — that they didn’t ask to be born into — this kind of positive self-belief can be the fuel that helps them to overcome their harsh beginnings. Believing in their unlimited potential can start them on a path that leads them to, if not become leader of the world, then at least make more of themselves than anybody could have realistically expected.
But there’s a big difference between being born into trying circumstances and being born into relative comfort and luxury, and it’s these people for whom “you can do anything you set your mind to” is a dangerous trap.
I suppose my real beef with it is the assumption that we are born as blank canvases. I don’t believe that for a second. I don’t believe you or I could have recorded Axis: Bold As Love. And I don’t believe Jimi Hendrix could have isolated molybdenum. I don’t believe that whoever could have done whatever… if it wasn’t in their nature to do so.
You are not a blank canvas. You have within you a multitude of strengths and weaknesses. You are drawn toward certain things in life, and away from others. Whilst the “you can do anything you set your mind to” cheerleaders might champion discovering your strengths and your passions and what makes you tick, they are missing the other essential half of the equation.
Your weaknesses, your limitations, the things you hate… these “negatives” have just as much — I believe more — of an effect than the “positives” which — granted — are nicer to think about.
Imagine coming home from Tesco with a bag for life filled with tomatoes. Now, there are lot of things you could make with that big old bag of tomatoes, but this list is not infinite, and I think you’ll agree that — hypothetically — knowing what tomatoes are and are not capable of could potentially save you a lot of wasted time.
But if instead you decided to adopt the “you can do anything you set your mind to” mantra when it came to your bag of tomatoes, then there are any number of dumb things you might end up doing. You might put them in the toaster, labouring under the impression that if you just set your mind to it, they’ll turn into toast. But you’d just end up making a mess. Ruining your toaster. Maybe even starting an electrical fire.
Tomatoes — delicious and versatile as they are — have limitations, just like everything in the known universe. Things only work in the space they work in. Learning what a tomato — or a block of wood, or you, yourself, as a unique human being — is actually capable of is not some kind of scary exercise in negativity that should be avoided at all costs. It’s not depressing, it’s not giving in… it’s liberating. It’s an extremely intelligent way to approach life.
Prior to being diagnosed with ADHD, I just thought I was shit at a load of things mentally — remembering where I’d put things, being organised, staying on task with things that were boring — that other people seemed to get along just fine with. I assumed that my only option, other than “give up,” was to try harder at everything — to “set my mind” to it. This only served to make me feel worse about myself when I couldn’t do what I tried to, no matter how hard I tried.
After my diagnosis, however, I realised that there was another option open to me. My brain has a physical limitation, which has certain knock-on effects on what I am and am not capable of. And so I started learning how to compensate. I started accepting that most of the things I am naturally crap at are not worth worrying about, and I started devising ways to step around them instead, saving my energy for the areas of life where my trying could actually make a difference.
Before diagnosis, I was putting tomatoes in the toaster, and when they didn’t turn into toast, I was heaping more and more of them in, turning up the heat on the toaster, and then crying about the inevitable fires I was causing.
After diagnosis, I decided to use them to make soup instead.