Episode 16: No, You Can’t
“Some lessons in why your telling yourself you can might wind up in finding out why you can’t.”
Welcome to The Uncomfortable Truth and the uncomfortable truth today is, “No, you can’t.” That’s right, no, you can’t. Remember Sammy Davis Jr.? He was that extraordinary entertainer. He had a book out called “Yes I Can.” That’s because he overcame great odds. He was black. He had one eye because of an auto accident. He was married to a white woman at one point, May Britt. He converted to Judaism. Yet he was a theatrical star, a recording star, a film star, and a star of live shows. I remember seeing him in the old Stanley Theater in Jersey City, New Jersey. It was packed to the gills. There was not an empty seat, and he did everything. He sang, and he danced, and he played musical instruments. At one point, he even put on a quick draw demonstration with guns on his hips. He was marvelously talented. We saw him on Broadway in Golden Boy, in which he was a boxer. But after all that, he died of throat cancer because he smoked cigarettes all of his life. He left his wife destitute. People like Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis’ friends came to his aid and helped with his widow.
It’s easy to say, “Yes, I can.” It’s easy to sometimes prove that you can do it, but sometimes you have to say, “No, you can’t.” We can’t, for example, ignore health care warnings. Sammy Davis had them. We can’t pretend they’ll go away. There are things that people say to me that are amazing. “Why didn’t you go to a doctor?” “Well, I don’t want a doctor looking around in there. Who knows what he’ll find?” As though if no one looks, nothing will happen. We can’t, for example, live beyond our means. I used to tell executives all the time when I was doing a lot of corporate consulting, “Listen, you know, you have to make decisions within your means. You can’t spend more money than you take in.” Otherwise, there’s a name for it. The name is bankruptcy.
There are some things that we simply can’t do, and we need to get used to it. We can’t be whatever we dream. Sammy Davis’ talent was a great exception. Once in a lifetime performer, perhaps. I can’t sing, for example. I have tried, but I can’t sing. For my 70th birthday party, I wanted to surprise all my guests at the Rainbow Room in New York and sing. I took singing lessons. After a while, the teacher said, “You know, you can’t.” I said, “You’re right. I can’t.” I took piano lessons when I was younger. I thought it would be nice to play a musical instrument. Turns out, I could barely play the radio. After that eight or nine lessons, she said to me, “You know, we’re done.” I said, “What do you mean we’re done? I can’t play anything.” She says, “Well, that’s the point.” I said, “Look, is it a matter of money?” She said, “You don’t have enough money. Please, try another pursuit.” I can’t sing. I can’t play musical instruments. No, I can’t. Nothing is going to enable me to do that.
In high school, I could win the sprints. I was a sprinter. I was a dash man. I used to run what was then called the 100 and the 220. Those were yards. Today it’s the 100 and 200 meters. But I was a skinny white kid in an inner city school, and I used to win at the 100 and the 220, and occasionally the high jump. I lost more than I won, but I occasionally won, but I could never think about doing that in college. I was lucky to do it where I did, so I could do it in high school, but I couldn’t do it in college.
You know, I call innovation “applied creativity.” That’s my definition of innovation, to set it apart. It’s applied creativity. These are good ideas that you can use and monetize on. They’re pragmatic. Our own aspirations should be grand, but also pragmatic. You know, you reach and exceed your grasp and all that kind of stuff. Come on. Our aspirations need to be pragmatic. Not limited, but pragmatic.
Here are some things you can’t do, in my opinion. You can’t get your news from social media. If you get your news from social media and solely from social media, you will be uninformed to the point of being ignorant. That’s because social media, especially Facebook, has a huge confirmation bias. People only cite examples, and reports, and studies, and opinions, and friends who agree with them. Period. Right now, there’s a huge confirmation bias in a lot of colleges and universities. “There’s free speech, so long as you agree with us.” You have to get your news from diverse sources. You can’t just read The New York Times, paper of record that it is, because it’s extraordinarily liberal. You have to read some different newspapers, The Wall Street Journal perhaps, or watch some different TV shows, or listen to some different radio channels. Have some different conversations with people.
You know what you can’t do? You can’t fail to vaccinate your kids. If that offends you, I’m sorry, but the fact is, unvaccinated children in schools, on athletic teams, at social events, are a danger. There is absolutely no scientific evidence that vaccinations cause autism or anything else. A lot of people want to claim that they do, and there might be an exception here or there, but the exceptions are such that they’re not worth changing this ultimately safe means of protecting our children. Occasionally, a plane crashes. It’s rare that a plane crashes that has taken off and is tending to go somewhere. But occasionally it happens, and almost never in the United States. But that doesn’t mean that we stop flying. So, you can’t fail to vaccinate your kids.
You can’t wait until the last minute to meet your deadlines. Oh, I know. A lot of people say, “I’m best under pressure.” No. “Cards are on the table, chips are on the table, I’m best.” Yeah, well, I got news for you. You’re not. When you rush things at the end, you sacrifice quality. There’s that dashing reporter, you know? On the deadline, typing away at the keyboard with minutes to go, and the editor yelling. Doesn’t happen anymore. You can substitute things at the last minute. It’s not a matter of typesetting and sending it to presses which are churning out newspapers. It’s a different world these days. If you want to wait until the last minute to complete a client report, or to seek referrals, or to fulfill any kind of commitment, either you’re going to miss it and be late, or you’re going to meet it and have lower quality.
You can’t borrow and not repay. Whether it’s money, or support, or time, you can’t do that, because it will catch up with you. You will lose trust. You will lose the help, and support, and time, and money of other people. That’s something you can’t do.
You can’t think solely of yourself. I like healthy selfishness. I like putting your own oxygen mask on first. I like being careful to help yourself so that you can help others better and better, but you can’t think solely of yourself. It doesn’t work.
You can’t believe those who disagree with you are inferior. That’s really dangerous. There are people who disagree with you, and they might have a weak cause, or you might be absolutely convinced that you are on the moral high ground, but to think they’re stupid because they disagree with you is a very, very serious error. You can’t do that. When you do it, it causes polarization, and we’ve seen what happens when there’s polarization. We have very bad elections. We have very bad rancor. We have people losing friendships, and that’s because we think that people who disagree with us somehow are not as good as we are. You can’t do that.
You can’t procrastinate and expect to be successful. You can’t tell me that you’ll get to it later, or it’s not worth doing, or you meant to do it and you can’t. Nobody who’s successful has that little discipline. You can’t act that way.
We’re inculcated throughout much of our lives with easy listening rather than tough actions, and that’s the uncomfortable truth. We trot our former names at motivational rallies. Have you ever seen this? You know, they push out a George Bush or Colin Powell, or somebody who once was someone, and they say 30 minutes worth of stuff and sell their cassettes, and tapes, and books in the back. Whether it’s Zig Zigler or a former president, it doesn’t matter. It’s all empty. There’s no nourishment. There’s no protein.
You can’t improve yourself by listening to motivational speakers. You can’t improve yourself with the self-help absurdities that surround us today. It takes hard work, not listening to tapes. It takes hard work, not telling ourselves empty affirmations. This has plagued us for 100 years. From the big thinking movement, to the human potential movement, from est to fire walking, from Think and Grow Rich and Napoleon Hill’s nonsense, to The Secret and that nonsense. This stuff has plagued us forever, but you can’t do that.
You can’t expect to get ahead through motivating yourself or expecting others to motivate you. You have to put in the hard work. You have to have the discipline. You have to have the talent. You have to have the creativity. You have to have the plan.
You know, over the last 10 years or so, we’ve spent billions of dollars on dieting in the United States. Billions, over the last decade or so, on diet. On exercise, on pills, on dietary supplements, on Weight Watchers, on equipment, on food groupings, on coaches, on personal trainers. I could go on, and on, and on. Billions. Yet as a people, Americans are heavier than ever. It shows that, to me, you can’t lose weight just by going through a certain regimen. You can’t lose weight just by reading a certain book. You lose weight through a sustained, and disciplined, and committed period of watching your diet and exercising regularly. With rare exception, with metabolic and health exception, that’s how you lose weight.
You can’t do it another way, although people try. People try to get hypnotized. People try to do a number of things, but you know, in my new book Lifestorming with Marshall Goldsmith, we point out the research is pretty clear. If you hang out with heavy people, you’ll be heavier yourself. In fact, if your server in a restaurant is on the heavy side, you’ll tend to eat more food. If you’re in a health club working out, and you look out the window, if that’s where the machine is facing, you will not work out as hard as when the machine is facing into the group, and you see other people working out. You’ll work out harder yourself. Everybody should be looking at each other when they’re working out. Not at the walls, or paintings, or TV, or out the window.
You can’t just say you’ll do it. You have to put in the structured effort. You know, is it a matter of, “Gee, I just can’t lose weight”? No, it’s not that. It’s just you can’t do it that way. You have to do it the right way. We need the discipline and the exercise, and we should stop condemning everyone else. It’s not much different from saying, “Well, if you don’t agree with me, you’re stupider than I am.” We blame the food manufacturers. We blame what they put in the boxes. We demand, through government legislation, that they put numbers on the bags, and the calories, and everything else. You know, I love it when I get a bottle of water, and on the back, the nutritional rating is all zeroes, because it’s water! Yet, we insist they do this, as though it’s some kind of test to try to ensure that we’re okay. We’re not. You can’t do it that way.
You can’t get some things done solely through positive thoughts or listening to others. You just can’t do it. You’re kidding yourself. You can, however, get things done when you understand the work and the discipline, the sacrifice, and the limits of your own abilities. I reconciled myself to the fact that I’m not going to sing, and that I’m not going to play a musical instrument, but that I can speak, and I can write, and I can do all kinds of things really, really well, as can you.
Stop telling yourself you can when you can’t. Be more selective. Focus on the things you can really do well, and understand that anything any of us do well, whether it’s sports, or entertainment, or work, requires the discipline and focus to get it done correctly.
That’s an uncomfortable truth.
Good Morning Alan,
This was an incredible read and hits to the gut of the matter. This should be posted at the entrance of every Self-Improvement section in all the book stores in the world. You’re singing a pretty good tune here!