The difference between “I can’t” and “It’s hard”

Often in our taekwondo classes, I will hear the frustrated voice of a child saying, “I can’t do it.” Maybe it’s a push up. Maybe it’s a move requiring a lot of balance or coordination. Maybe it’s just something new.

If my husband teaching the class, he will always call that out and say, “Yes you can!”

Then child will then say, “But it’s haaaaarrrd!” (I wish I knew how to type the way the kids say it – it’s always this part whine, part lament, part cry of frustration.”

Then, my husband will say, “Yes, it is hard. But – how hard are you going to try to do something impossible? Like levitate off the ground and float up to the ceiling?”

“Not very hard.”

“But, I bet you’ll try a lot harder to do something that’s merely difficult, like defeat the last level of your favorite video game.”

The kids generally concede this point. Sometimes he’ll share the example of Roger Bannister, the first man to run a mile in under four minutes. Until he did it, runners had tried and failed for decades (noticing a theme this week) to achieve a four minute mile. Over and over they failed, I’m sure a few wondered if it was even possible. But, once he demonstrated that it was possible, another runner did it within three weeks. Three other runners did it in the same race a year later.

I guess I should be surprised that this still surprises me, but after this little talk, and my husband explaining how important it is to challenge ourselves to grow, and how this struggle is an important part of the learning process, the kid will go back to practicing whatever was “impossible” three minutes ago, and do it pretty well.

Then Daniel will remind the kid, “See what you just did there? You turned the impossible into the possible.”

Sometimes, I feel a little oppressed by the big difference that little words can make. Especially with something as trivial as “it’s impossible” versus “it’s hard.” The writer in me enjoys the dramatic language, the flair of saying “THIS IS IMPOSSIBLE!!!!” really encapsulates all the frustration and exhaustion I may be feeling in a moment, especially the moment when I want to give up. But I’ve seen over and over what a difference this makes in people’s effort and motivation.

There’s also a difference between, “I can’t” and “I don’t really want to.” That can be hard. I think sometimes we feel like it’s rude or cheating to say, “I don’t choose to do this.” I think that I as a millennial (or maybe just as a person with bad boundaries?) I feel like if I can do something that means I should do something.

But that is false. I can say no to things.

Honestly, I’d rather say, “I won’t” than “I can’t.” Because we don’t always have a coach standing nearby to remind us: Yes. It’s hard. But we can do hard things if we don’t give up. If we listen to the voice in our head telling us the things we can’t do all day long. Over time, I think we can really start to limit ourselves.

So, here’s your reminder for today: It’s not impossible. It’s hard. And we can do hard things, if we choose to.


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