Conquering “I Can’t”

By Shoshie Gutnick, North Bondi, Australia
Essays 2016

MyLife Essay Contest 2016


How many times have we heard our children say “I can’t!”? Have you ever considered it to be true? Are they really incapable of completing the task?

These two words can cast a shadow over future endeavours, trapping us in a pit of fear and doubt. Understanding where such an attitude stems from allows us to conquer it.

In essence, the words “I can’t” arise from the belief that our capabilities and traits are unchangeable. Such an approach fosters the belief that “I’m either good at something,” and therefore I need to prove it and avoid any challenges that might reveal otherwise, or “I’m not” and therefore don’t need to attempt it. Chassidus however teaches the opposite approach. Through exploring what the criteria of “one who serves Hashem,” it is apparent that we must constantly be striving to grow and improve beyond our comfort zone. We should not limit our desire for improvement to only talents and capabilities we are naturally strong in. Rather, we must also seek growth in those aspects of life we are not naturally inclined towards, and in doing so strengthen those areas of our lives also.

This essay will explore how a shift in our attitude towards our capabilities can empower us to overcome the fear of failure that leads to “I can’t,” encouraging us to take on greater challenges, and provide the tools to impart this mindset to our children.

The issue at hand 

“I’m good/bad at this”: On the surface, this is a statement reflecting an honest self-evaluation of ones skills and talents. When we look deeper however, this phrase reflects an attitude ingrained in a person, an attitude that inhibits one’s growth.  Without consciously acknowledging it, by viewing our talents and capabilities as static; good at this, not so good at that, we are confining ourselves within dangerous borders, limiting our capabilities and our ability to grow. And with such an attitude arises the words “I can’t.”  Often such a mindset is created by those around us, our friends, parents or teachers. When praising a child, we often label them as “smart” or “talented,” and whilst it’s acknowledging the unique capabilities Hashem bestowed on each of us, such a statement traps the child within the mind frame of “I can’t.”

When we give a child the limitations of saying “You’re smart, you’re good at this”, we immediately force a child to live up to those standards, and therefore anything that might threaten such a title, a challenge that might reveal weakness in such an area, is alarming and therefore avoided. Furthermore, the child becomes content with the standard he’s at, thinking “if I’m good at this, I don’t need to work hard, I don’t need help from others, I just need to show I’m good at it,” constantly trying to prove his capabilities rather than improve. Conversely, viewing ourselves as incapable of growth in a certain area has a similar effect. Brushing something off by saying “I’m not good at it,” deprives any chance of further improvement.

People with the mindset that capabilities are set use “I can’t” merely as a smokescreen, concealing an inherent fear of vulnerability and failure, a fear that Chassidus provides us with the tools to overcome.

The Chassidic Approach

Chassidus negates the notion that our capabilities are fixed, enforcing instead the notion that we all have not only the ability, but the duty to grow. Whilst we must acknowledge our strengths in order to serve Hashem better, we must never be satisfied within the comfort zone of what we’re “good at.” The Rebbe addresses this notion in a private letter about education.  “Education—in the general “worldly” outlook—is commonly regarded a process of acquiring formal knowledge, in terms of basic and higher education, which is to be accomplished in the juvenile and adolescent stages of life… Needless to say, this is not the Torah concept of Chinuch. Since the Torah is “our life,” it calls for a constant effort to strengthen and invigorate this life-giving process in the everyday life… each and every moment of the Jew’s life must be consecrated to this purpose in constant striving to serve the Creator all the better from day to day.” [1]

When viewing our capabilities as set, it is easy to be content, and hard work seems to be unnecessary. Tanya however outlines that we must constantly toil, and wage war with our Yetzer Horah. Toiling means commitment, and the willingness to work hard, constantly challenging ourselves and where we’re standing in life. The Alter Rebbe brings a Moshul[2] of two wrestlers battling in an arena. Despite the strength of the superior wrestler, as soon as he becomes complacent, the weaker one immediately has the upper hand and will be victorious, persistence prevailing over strength. Our attitude and approach shapes our reality, and our ability to succeed. If we become complacent, then no matter how “strong” we are, no matter what spiritual heights we have attained, we are limiting ourselves, and denying ourselves success and spiritual growth.

The Alter Rebbe, in Chapter 15 of Tanya emphasises that in order to be considered “he who serves Hashem” we must be constantly going beyond our nature, beyond the confined limitations of “what we’re good at.” The defining factor between a Beinoni “who serves G-d,” and Beinoni “who serves Him not” is not his righteousness, for both categories of Beninim are righteous. Rather, it is the Beinoni’s endeavour to learn something “101 times,” when the norm is 100[3], to challenge his nature in order to progress. [4] When assessing a situation, instead of viewing it from the perspective “will I pass or fail,” ask yourself, “will I grow.”

Hashem commanded Moshe, “Lech Lecha Martzecha, Umemoladecha, Umibais Avicha.”[5] If one’s “birthplace” is permeated with holiness, and he remains within the ways he was raised, the Rebbe emphasises he is still considered within the status of “not serving Hashem.”  We must “go”, and rise infinitely higher than our previous level, a task which can only accomplished through hard work, and challenges. When we view our mission with the aim of growth and self-improvement, then the vulnerability that accompanies a challenge will be disregarded. Challenges are an opportunity to strengthen ourselves, and should be embraced rather than feared, a fear masked by the words “I can’t.”

Similarly, when approaching something that we’re not naturally inclined towards, it’s easy to ignore it, and not attempt to improve. The Rebbe however emphasised that our approach to learning isn’t perfection, but rather improvement, even in areas we struggle in. In a letter to a student struggling, the Rebbe replied, “In Shema it says, “Bechol Meodecha” –  “with all your might.” As long as you’re doing your best that is what Hashem wants.” We must not view ourselves as incapable of growing in tasks that are not our forte; rather we must also approach these areas with the mindset of growth.

The words “I can’t” can also reflect contentment with the stage we’re at. Once we’ve accomplished our desired goal or attained “enough” knowledge, it’s very easy to be satisfied. Past accomplishments however should never be seen as enough. Once we accomplish one goal, we must set another. As the Rebbe numerously repeated, our sages suggest, “He who has 100, desires 200; and having attained 200, desires 400.” We should never be satisfied with how active or “smart” we are, but rather, our accomplishments should be a constant source of inspiration for greater achievement in the future.[6]

When constantly challenging ourselves and seeking growth, mishaps are inevitable. [7] There will be times when we take a step back, when we don’t succeed, when we feel like we’ve failed. When we make a mistake or fall short of a goal however, we haven’t failed. We have learnt. When believing that our traits and qualities are set, then failure at something “we’re good at,” can be debilitating. Such an approach however is inadvertently rooted in arrogance. Thinking we’re “good at something”, and therefore should be successful, is placing ourselves akin to perfect. The Alter Rebbe instructs a Beinoni who is disheartened by the fact that he has negative thoughts, that he should “Makir Mekomo” – “recognise his place.[8]” He must acknowledge he is not a Tzaddik, and not be disheartened, but rather rejoice at the unique opportunity to constantly subdue his negative thoughts. Such a service of G-d has a cosmic effect, arousing G-d’s mercy from above. It is very easy to fall into the trap of discouragement. If, however, we look at our shortcomings, our mistakes as a wakeup call to work harder, not letting them stop us from improving, we will be able to conquer the discouragement that can often lead to apathy. Instead of titling yourself “a failure,” consider stating, “I failed, and need to try harder next time, and figure out the tools to succeed”.

Secular Findings 

Dr Carol Dweck[9], a psychologist who did extensive research into the effects of our mindset, conducted a study, which conveyed the effects of one’s mindset. A group of young children were asked to complete a puzzle. Once they finished it they had the opportunity to re-do the puzzle, or move on to a harder puzzle. Those children who has been raised with the mind frame that capabilities were set, requested to redo the puzzle, affirming their capabilities, and repeating the exercise. Other children however, who believed that they had the opportunity to work and improve their skills, requested the harder puzzle, not afraid of failure, one child even exclaiming, “I hoped this would be informative.”  Hence. the difference between growth and stagnation is rooted in our mindset.

So next time there is an opportunity to be challenged, instead of recoiling back into your comfort zone, where you know you can prove your capabilities, embrace it. The Rebbe constantly emphasized that progress “is largely in the student’s own hands.[10]” Through desiring improvement, we will be able to grow and achieve.

How to fix it for the future

The praise we give and receive has a paramount influence on our attitudes. When we praise a person’s traits and capabilities, we are immediately confining them, giving them an “identity” that consists of their skills and capabilities. Instead, focus on praising in line with the approach of Chassidus, praising effort and consistent hard work. When a child comprehends a difficult problem, instead of praising, “You’re smart,” which leads them to value their capabilities, change it to “you tried all kinds of strategies until you understood!” enforcing that the effort they put in is what enabled them to succeed. Instead of telling a child “I told you it would be easy! You’re smart!” tell your child, “It was a lot of hard work, but you kept going and got it done. That’s great!” In doing so, you are imbuing in your child that hard work is commendable and necessary. And when your child tells you he got a good result without even trying, instead of congratulating him, say “that was too easy, you need something more challenging that you can learn from!” Whilst it is commendable as a

reflection of his preliminary capabilities, praising him gives off the impression that effort is unnecessary, comparable to studying something “100 times” only. It is the toiling and going out his comfort zone that makes a Benoni an “Oved” – “a servant of Hashem.” And when one feels discouraged by the lack of improvement, encourage him by saying “I like the effort you put in, now let’s work together to see how you can better understand.” Small adjustments in the way we view our capabilities can have a paramount influence on our ability to improve.


So how do we conquer “I cant?” By shifting our attitude towards our capabilities, and the way we praise our children. We must constantly keep in mind that through effort and improvement, going beyond our nature, we are considered “he who serves Hashem.” It is possible to accomplish the greatest feats with hard work and commitment. In order to grow, we must embrace challenges, rather than shy away from them, and learn from our mistakes in order to improve. We must praise our children’s efforts, so they too gain an appreciation for not talents or abilities, but rather hard work and toil. So next time you feel like saying or hear your child saying “I can’t,” change it to “I’ll try” and with hard work and persistence, success is inevitable.



[1] Letter: 15 Teves, 5739

[January 14, 1979]

[2] Tanya Chapter 26

[3] As it was in the times of the Talmud when the term was coined

[4] Tanya Chapter 15

[5] Sicha Parshas Lech Lecha 10th Day of MarCheshvan, 5742 (1981)

[6] Rebbe Letter: Rosh Chodesh Elul, 5735

[August 8, 1975]

[7] This idea of approaching challenges from the perspective of growth also echoes the notion of Yerida Letzorech Aliya – “falling downwards in order to rise.” However this article is targeting how to approach our capabilities and talents in general, rather than the way we confront failure, and therefore there is a distinction.

[8] Tanya, Chapter 27

[9] Dr Carol Dweck explores the concept of growth and fixed mindset within her book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” The theories she presents can all be found within Chassidus.

[10] Rebbe Letter: 28th of Nissan 5712 [April 23, 1952]