You Can do This…Maybe. Disputing The Little Engine that Could

The Little Engine That Could was wrong.

The Little Engine that Could - I think I can

“I will do this” It’s what you say when you’ve spent the time asking “Can I do this?” (Click to Tweet)

One of the interesting things that happens as a parent is re-reading children’s books from a new perspective. And I’ve found incredible life, leadership, and business lessons in them. (Like this book which will make you happy)

It’s amazing how much has changed since I was five years old. It’s even more amazing how much I have changed. I suddenly get Dr. Seuss (Oh, the Places You’ll Go has become a favorite) and I’ve discovered that The Little Engine That Could has two flaws.

  1. Self-talk. I get what the authors are trying to convey here. “I think I can, I think I can,” the Engine says to himself and it drives him to succeed. The only problem is that “I think I can, I think I can” is the lamest form of positive self-talk. “I can do this” is better, although I prefer it’s better looking cousin, “I will do this.”
  2. Lack of preparation. “I think I can, I think I can” is what you say as you walk into the board room full of executives to deliver a speech you just wrote that morning. And you have no public speaking experience whatsoever. It’s a wish and a hope.

First ask…

“I will do this” is what you say when you’ve spent the time asking “Can I do this?”

It’s what you say when you’ve put in the time, the reps, the practice, and been through the doubt and pain. You know you are ready.

Saying “I will do this” when you haven’t prepared or questioned is like thinking positive self-talk will allow someone who has never played golf to hit the ball as far and straight as I do. I know I can do it because I put in 10+ hours a day for 10+ years growing up. I put in my reps. I have ten of thousands of positive memories to pull on.

The path to “I will do this.”

Ultimately, the path looks like this:

I think I can or I will do this.

“I will do this” should never be said in a weak manner. It’s a positive statement resulting from preparation. It’s a declaration said with emphatic boldness and confidence.

It comes from knowing that you have identified what you want to do, putting in the reps to do it, and then and only then…saying you can do it.

“I have already done this.”

“I WILL do this!”

What do you need to put in reps for? Where is your self-talk failing?

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  • Let’s Grow Leaders

    Matt, I LOVE this post. It’s funny, I had the same reaction when I started reading it again with my kids. There is also a sequel called “I knew you could.”

    You may enjoy this collection of best leadership books for kids that I compiled from the online community.

    • Wow. That list is awesome. Who knew there were so many?

      I’d say my favorites are:

      Let’s Be Happy (linked above)
      Let’s Play as a Team (same authord)
      Oh, the Places You’ll Go
      and a book that is in my sleeping daughter’s room that is about a mouse who befriends a cat…forget the name, but it’s a very powerful example of not judging a book by its cover.

  • Good post today…after reading this we outlawed The Little Engine that Could in our house…lol! I’m just kidding, but I love the insight. And Dr. Seuss is one of my favorites too!

    • Nice. If you’d like, we can burn it together. :)

      • There’s a few that shouldn’t make the bookshelves in kids’ rooms.

  • Morgan Cryar

    This reminds me of a story I heard about Fred Astaire. He was known for practicing a routine for so many hours that he could do it while almost looking bored, effortless. He “put in the reps.” By the time the actual performance or filming took place, he had done it so many times that it always came off looking like it was absolutely no effort for him. You can see what I’m talking about in this clip:

    • Man….if I could dance like him….well, I’d be able to dance. (‘Cause I can’t)

      That made me think of a time I was hitting golf balls on the range right around my peak. A guy walked by and said, “I wish I could hit the ball like that.”

      I wanted to say “No you don’t. You don’t wish you’d put in 10+ hours a day for the past 6 years (often in the searing heat or freezing cold). You don’t wish you worked out most days, studied the swing, and sacrificed as much as I had.”

      Same thing goes with the guitar or piano. (as you know :-) )

      • I’m in the same boat – I don’t think that people can call what I do “dancing.”

    • Katherine Leicester

      I’ve just spent the past five minutes watching Bob Fosse and Carol Haney at the tail end of “From This Moment On” in the movie “Kiss Me Kate.” Tremendous work ethic, and it shows.

      And Fred Astaire was one of the very few men who looked terrific in white shoes.

  • Debbie Blunt

    I like “I am doing this” even better. “Will” implies it happens sometime in the future and that you aren’t doing or don’t have whatever it is. I “am” tells your subconscious that you are doing this already and it goes to work on making it happen. Use “I am” and see and feel yourself doing/having what you want. Listen to the difference in “I will be a success” vs. “I AM a success.” Powerful Stuff.

    • That is an awesome point Debbie. I always encourage people to state goals in the present tense.

  • Katherine Leicester

    Tremendous post, Matt, mostly because it tears down the cotton candy idea that is so destructive to young leaders, young people… and pretty much everybody. The idea that I can think my way into success is crazy.

    It’s much more fun to toil and sweat and earn your way to whatever it is than to have it handed to you. Not so much fun at the time, but rewarding in that deep way that separates joy from mere happiness.

  • I’m with you, Debbie Blunt! “I am doing this”. I thought I couldn’t, then I thought I could, then I began gathering information and making a plan, and now I am drawing a book. 160 pictures into it, 70 more ahead. I’m half-way across the river and I’m not turning around and swimming half-way back!

    “I think I can” does sound tentative. . . sort of like “try”.

    • Try: the worst word in the English language…OK second behind “smudge.” I just don’t like that word.

  • I know I can, I know I can ;0)

  • Lulu

    I was so happy to see you marry the positive self-talk with preparation. There seems to be an excessive amount of time and energy devoted to the self-talk, not feeling fear, not listening to the “voices” – but little emphasis on preparation. We often can not do because we have not planned. It is a partnership. As you pointed out with golf – we can imagine hitting straight, long and true all we want – and yes, it will help our attitude towards the shot – but nothing takes the place of actually doing it. To accomplish that you need a place, equipment and time – all appropriate for the task. People often fail in their goals because they do not prepare to succeed.

    • Right on Lulu.

      Positive thoughts without hard work = Delusion

      Hard work without belief = Wasted effort

  • Thanks for this, Matt. It’s amazing what difference there is when you make just a subtle change in words. “I will do this” is much more empowering and action driven than “I think I can.” I know that I’ve used “I think I can” when asked something, but I’m going to try to change that.

  • The Thank You Thursday thing is something that I’ve done in repetition, and it’s paid off in huge dividends.