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'You Can Do Anything If You Try Hard Enough' Is a Lie

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With the Paralympics just finishing, I hear it even more than usual: “You can do anything if you try hard enough.” This is simply not true and it’s one of my biggest pet peeves.

I was interviewing a mom whose daughter has a very rare condition with multiple physical and mental impairments and she mentioned this too. She realizes that her daughter can make great strides and do great things but can’t “be anything she wants.” I love her realistic attitude.

When I was young, I first thought about this, ironically, concerning fair employment practices and acting. I knew that an employer was supposed to consider each candidate equally for a position. But how did that work if the part was obviously for a child and the one who wanted it was a senior citizen? In the times we live in, it would be possible to do make-up or CGI to make that elderly person into one much younger, but in most cases, it would be cost-prohibitive and frankly, unnecessary.

My daughter is a good example of someone who has a great aptitude to do work that physically she can’t do. Yes, I’m biased, but she has incredible potential to be a great cinematographer. She has an eye for unusual angles and knows the psychology of how a certain type of shot makes you feel. But she has a condition that makes her extremely sensitive to extremes in temperature, especially heat. You know the phrase, “The mind is willing but the body is weak?” She epitomizes that phrase. She would love to work in film but knows her limits. Working 12-hour days on film sets that range from very hot to very cold is not something she can do.

Though I believe those with Down syndrome can do so much more than many give them credit for, it’s extremely unlikely that someone with Down syndrome will ever become a top physicist. Even if it’s just the way their education was handled due to our low expectations and not their true capacity, it’s just not going to happen.

I’m extremely overweight and have been at least somewhat overweight the majority of my life, plus, I have joint hypermobility syndrome. I never could have been a top gymnast. Between my loose joints and my weight, I wouldn’t have been able to pull off even the most basic skills, much less top-level ones.

I could go on and on with other examples but that’s not the point of this post. The point is that we need stop portraying the message that trying hard will lead to success (as society defines it). Instead, we need to focus on helping each person become the best they can be, even if that’s not “the best.” We also need to encourage those who have a dream to think outside of the box. Maybe the original dream isn’t possible, but there may be something similar that is possible that would be just as fulfilling.

Indulge me by letting me share one more personal example. I am 53 and have multiple physical and mental conditions that affect my day-to-day life. I’m also a freelance photographer and writer and would love to be the best in my area at what I do. However, I recognize I have limitations and can’t do “anything.”

I can’t do 12-hour shoots due to no longer having enough stamina. I can’t do outdoor shoots in the summer unless they are short and I can have access to something very cold to drink throughout. I can’t climb a lot of stairs or jump onto the bumper of a truck (which I did years ago) to get the best angle for a shot. Some days my depression or brain fog is so bad that I can’t think well enough to sit at a desk and write. Other days my anxiety is so high I have a hard time editing the photos I took because I keep second-guessing myself.

I would absolutely love to be a photographer who works for one professional sports team, music group, or performer. But that involves a lot of travel (not good with my mental issues), a lot of unknowns (not good for my anxiety), a lot of physical work (not good with my stamina). No matter how much I want this kind of job and “try hard” to get it, it’s not going to happen.

But some examples of I can:

  • work towards getting the best angles and shots within a smaller space so I’m not wearing myself out before a photography session is over
  • schedule summer shoots in the morning or evening, try to put off the shoot until cooler weather, or refer them to another photographer
  • write a lot when I’m mentally able so that when I’m not, I’m not behind
  • unless there’s a tight deadline that’s not in my control, give my clients a later image delivery date than I would like so I can wait to edit if I’m not able to do my best on a certain day
  • set my schedule so that I can take breaks if needed (again, unless there’s a tight deadline)
  • ask for help and accommodations if needed — such as a cold drink on a hot day or an extended deadline for a client who usually has a tight deadline
  • shoot as many professional sports, concerts, and performers as possible who are in my area so that I can take the time needed to recover

Sometimes I feel guilty because I can’t do everything I’d like to do as a photographer and writer. I would love to be able to run around and get the best photos possible. I would love to be able to sit down and write any time for as long as I want and know that I won’t have to re-do it later because it made no sense.

If you look at my photography and writing you can see that even with these limitations, I do a pretty good job. Is it the best it could possibly be? No. Do I try hard? H*ll, yeah. There’s always something I wish I could do better. I’m not making excuses but my physical and mental limitations are a big part of why I can’t.

However, there’s so much that “I can” even if I drop the expectation that it will result in “doing anything.”

The message we need to relay is encouragement while being realistic. Though it doesn’t fly off the tongue as well, what about this:

“Find a dream that is within or just beyond your skillset, personality, mental and physical abilities, and work hard to achieve that goal. Know that it’s OK if you fall short or need to come up with a different dream, but don’t give up on yourself. Even if you don’t fulfill your dream, your life can be wonderful and meaningful and will be if you don’t give up, not on your dream, but on you.”

Getty image by Zbynek Pospisil.

Originally published: September 20, 2021
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