Especially as children and teenagers, we often hear a certain kind of well-intentioned advice: “You can be anything you want to be.” “Anything is possible if you set your mind to it.” For clarity, I will be calling this omnipotence advice.
I deeply disagree. There are things you can’t do, and that’s okay.
The first problem with this relentlessly positive advice is that it simply isn’t true. I play piano with some skill, but I do not have the large hands of a concert pianist. Most people playing sports do not have the physical quirks necessary to be a top performer in their particular game. I will almost certainly never be able to function without some kind of medication. These things are true, and they cannot be changed.
This is common sense if you think about it, which makes omnipotence advice ring falsely on the ear. These clichés reduce trust: children and teenagers are more astute than they are often given credit for, and most will quickly discover the falseness of these claims.
Secondly, omnipotence advice places full responsibility on the person doing the thing, not those who may help or hinder. There are plenty of stories about disabled people overcoming great obstacles, but few about the ableism that puts obstacles in their way. It is wonderful to celebrate the accomplishments of those who are the first woman, person of color, etc. to achieve something, but we should also hold accountable the racism, sexism, and so forth that kept others from achieving it earlier.
Thirdly, “apply more willpower” is rarely helpful advice. If someone truly needs to expend more effort, tactics like proving to them that they can do something are more motivating than the discouraging “Just try harder.” And in most cases, it’s more helpful to change strategies than to apply more effort. Indeed, extra effort can backfire by solidifying incorrect habits, causing discouragement, and for some activities causing actual injury.
Finally, omnipotence advice tacitly assumes that we should try to achieve goals without asking if they’re the best choices for us.
One example is that of wheelchair users who, with difficulty, walk unaided during significant events such as weddings and graduations. While I do not wish to disrespect the experience of anyone who has done this, I feel that anyone who fully understands the situation would prefer to see their friend or loved one seated in comfort rather than fighting to stand. A wheelchair is liberating, not confining.
Other goals may be achievable but simply not worth the effort involved. Perhaps something that sounded enjoyable wasn’t so much fun when you got into it (there is no shame in quitting, for how could you know if you liked it without trying it?). Or perhaps it’s something prized by society or by someone you know, but it doesn’t align with your own deepest values. For a fuller discussion of this, I recommend this excellent article by a friend of mine.
So we’ve looked at why omnipotence advice isn’t helpful: what can we say instead? You might try something like this: “You can do much more than you might imagine.” “You are capable of amazing things.” Or perhaps point to a success the person has achieved and compliment their hard work. A little bit of success, when savored properly, makes a confidence booster that’s truly effective.