08 July, 2016

Putting your mind to it

You can achieve anything series – Part 1

A week or so ago, I promised not to write a post that promises that you can achieve anything you put your mind to it. In the comments, Cristy wondered why this belief exists?

I’ve drafted several versions of a post attempting to answer this. At first, I wrote a long response about the history of this belief, going back to immigrant miners, through to my grandparents’ and parents’ generations, and in my lifetime, the arrival of “Girls can do Anything” catchphrase, leading up to this very prevalent idea that we can in fact achieve anything as long as we work hard enough/want it enough/put our minds to it. But I’ve not researched this history enough to hit print, and they’re only my off-the-top-of-my-head theories, so – having mentioned them – I’ll drop that.

Then I jumped straight to its application in the infertility world, and began writing about that, though I’ve decided that should be my next two posts (and I confess to being nervous about posting these). But first, this message doesn't just appear in the infertility world. So here today, I’m back to some wider thoughts about the “you can achieve anything you put your mind to/work hard enough/want it enough” message that is so prevalent in society today. So, as Cristy asked, “Why does this belief exist?”

I think there are several reasons. On any given day, around any given issue, we might be influenced by just one of these, by a combination, or by all of them. You may disagree with these, or maybe you can come up with more. Please, tell me in the comments.

Self-aggrandisement: People who have achieved their dreams or who have broken through the glass ceiling are allowed to talk about this because, supposedly, they know what they’re talking about. But saying, “anyone can achieve anything they put their mind to,” is another way of saying, “look at me, I’m wonderful!” It’s humble bragging, saying that whilst anyone can do it, they were in fact one of the few who was special enough – worthy enough - to actually be able to achieve it. They look at their efforts, and remember how hard it was to achieve what they wanted, how long it took, and how much they wanted this. They want to feel all that hard work was justified, and that it was wholly responsible for the outcome, so they believe that their success was due primarily to their efforts. And of course, because they’ve achieved it, they have been anointed with credibility. They did it, so they must know what they’re talking about, right?

Altrusim: I can see that people who say this, at their best, want to be inspirational, to help others achieve what they’ve achieved. And many of us want them to be inspirational too. So they encourage, and try to spread the word. Do what I did (try hard, believe in it, or simply want it enough) and you too will get success.

Society: Our society’s moral values teach the values of hard work. My father-in-law, having lived through the Great Depression (yes, it severely affected NZ too – America sneezes, and the rest of the world catches cold) and its aftermath, believes that work is the purpose of life, that it gives your life its value, and that working hard is the highest level of virture. So “working hard” and “trying hard” are seen as virtuous attributes in themselves. It seems to me that in society these days, “wanting it enough” seems to be a more recent addition and distortion to this original concept.

Commercial motivations: So we are inundated with the message that success is within our reach if only we do X, Y and Z. We see it in the marketing of products and services – it’s always been there. We see it in the massive growth of the self-help industry. There’s now a lot invested – literally – in the continuation of this message, or its variations. They want, no, need us to believe this. We can achieve what we’ve always wanted if only we buy their products, and use their services, follow their advice, read their books, do what they did. It is all within our grasp. Nothing is out of our reach. It’s our fault if we don’t take the opportunities offered. On a macro-scale, our entire economic systems are based on promoting this message, even if the systems themselves are based on quite the opposite premise. (Though that’s another post/book/endless debate to be had, one that doesn’t belong here.)

Hope: We all want to believe that we could achieve these things though. When we say that “anyone can achieve anything if they want it enough” we are holding out hope that we too can achieve these things. How depressing to think that because of the way we look, or where we were born, or what genitals we have will be more of a predictor of our success and our value to society than our own thoughts and actions. So we eagerly buy into the idea that we can achieve anything we want, if we want it/work hard enough/believe it enough. It’s aspirational, right? And we think that that has to be a good thing.

And so it is in the infertility field, which will be my next post.


  1. We have a similar list. And now I need to spend some time drafting a post with all of these thoughts. But the two I want to touch on is the commercialization and the moral aspect. The moral because there is this assumption that you can easily change your lot in life if you just put your mind to it. Never mind that we now know that those you "succeed" do so due to the foundations laid by the generations before. That rags to riches does not exist. They go into the situation with a clear idea of the problem and what needs to be done to address it. "Unexplained" is scary territory.

    But the commercialization is also potent. I've known women who have selected specific fertility clinics because of the perceived better chance of getting pregnant. Never mind that some of these same clinic won't take patients that will hurt their statistics. This applies widely to things other than fertility treatments, but we want to believe that if we just do "X" and keep trying, we'll get what we want.

  2. So I'm of two thoughts with this. First and foremost, I think your list is sound, this part especially: "There’s now a lot invested – literally – in the continuation of this message, or its variations. They want, no, need us to believe this." We need to believe we can achieve anything as long as we have the right guidance/information because if we don't, not only does the self-help world collapse, but there is the underlying question of "what's the point."

    And on the other hand, I don't think it's the idea that's wrong, it's just the application of the idea that is the problem.

  3. I love, love, love your list. So true. I feel like the self-aggrandizement in particular is true, that people who find success in whatever way think that they have "the answer," and that if they can do it, surely others can too if they do it their way. It applies to people feeling that people living in poverty have done it to themselves when can't they pull themselves out like I did, or my grandfather did, or whatever? It completely ignores all the factors. This happens to me over and over with infertility and adoption, where someone achieves what is seen to be as "impossible" and then thinks that they have "the answer" if only we would do what they did. When, in all cases, success was dependent on some level of coincidence and some level of personal connection that timed exactly right, not a replicable "I did it and you can too!"

    The commercialism is definitely there, too, in infertility but also weight loss products and things that are meant to help you balance your life. In some cases I find it predatory.

    My MIL posted something from the Law of Attraction (something I have very, VERY mixed feelings about) and in it there was a slide that said "anything is possible, you can achieve anything you set your mind to," and I thought of you and your thoughts on that sentiment and how it's great in theory, but not universally true. And then you can just feel like so much more the failure for having tried and not succeeded because it breeds a feeling of "did I do enough? Did I really?"

    I can't wait for your infertility post on this topic. I love your perspective on the philosophy of "you can achieve anything you set your mind to."

    1. In my first draft, I had included comments on weight loss products etc too!

      I'm going to touch more on the impact of these statements in one of my upcoming posts, dealing with the failure issue etc.

  4. An amazing, insightful list!
    In Society--Hard work and Tenacity are great values but they don't get to drive the bus (at least not mine) without some input from Common Sense and Gut Check. I like how you pointed out that the "wanting it enough" piece seems to be a relatively new addition to this philosophy.
    I also appreciate how you weaved in the Commercial Motivations-- how they are trying to throw out some possible success X,Y and Z bait to reel us in.
    I wonder if with the Self Aggrandizement, there isn't some guilt in there somewhere (as in, "I succeeded and you didn't, and if it is your fault you failed I don't have to feel as guilty?").

    1. Oh yes, the guilt thing - that's a good point too!

  5. Ohhhh! I already can't wait to read your next posts!

    I completely agree with every item on your list. The reality is that we can't have it all. For example, it doesn't matter how much I believe that I will achieve it, or how hard I work towards it, I will never be a professional gymnast. The fact of the matter is that I'm six feet tall, not thin, and can trip over my own feet, and can injure myself in ways that seem to defy physics.

    I've worked hard for everything I have in life. But honestly luck has played a role in it too. Because there have been things I've worked really hard for that haven't materialized.

    This "you can achieve anything" thing is one thing that I worry about with the generation that is 20 and under. I feel like a lot of them have been raised with the belief that they really can do anything that they want and that they are entitled to whatever it is. I think this is dangerous and I think they're going to have a rude awakening at some point. I see this every single day in my line of work.

    Maybe I should write my own post on this topic, LOL!

  6. well done. I think I have another angle: fear. (insecurity) if success is also a matter of luck, chance and coincidence (plus a privileged starting point) and not just proof of how good a person is and how hard they worked, means they could just as easily not have had the success, despite the same hard work.
    maybe I'm not wording it right, but I hope you know what I mean.
    Also, when something fails people wonder why and then struggle when there is no answer. Where with success, there may also be no answer to the why question.(but the hard work answer seems acceptable then, as the highest virtue)
    greetings from Amsterdam

    1. That's a good point about fear.

      And yes, I agree that people struggle when there is no answer - although the "there is no answer" is in fact my favourite quote.

  7. To paraphrase Animal Farm, Anyone can achieve anything if they try hard enough/want it enough but some are more likely to achieve (as they are richer, have access to good healthcare and education, family isn't poverty stricken etc etc). Personally I find the statement shows contempt for those who are hobbled at the start. It seems to justify an attitude of blame for those unable to achieve what they dream.

  8. (With thanks to Cristy for poking me): I think this is a sound list, too. I work in a place where they really do try to let students believe this, too, and I think it's actually not a good idea. While I'm sensitive to the judgments people make without actually knowing our students, I also think that it's reasonable to help them make sense of real conditions. Hope gives us the ability to move forward sometimes, but perhaps it should be tempered in situations where we have some data.