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Telling People They’re Not Good Enough

Posted by on Jan 23, 2012 | 7 Comments

Blooger formula for remaining mysterious: Write a post one day, then completely contradict yourself the next day.

Works like a charm.  🙂

Yesterday I wrote a post about not allowing people to stand in the way of your dreams.  I strongly believe in this idea.  HOWEVER, does it mean we can do anything?

Probably not… especially if we play by the rules.  I’m not going to play Major League Baseball or become a surgeon.  You’re not going to bench press 2,000 pounds.  You can dramatically expand your potential by circumventing the rule-makers and gatekeepers, but there’s still probably limits.

When I was a teacher, I’d run into this situation often.  I’d have a student that had a completely unrealistic dream.  A good example- I had a student that wanted to be a veterinarian, which is great.  The problem- the kid could barely read.  He actually had trouble spelling his last name.  He should have been a senior, but only earned two of the required 21 credits needed to graduate.  I didn’t discourage him, but I didn’t give him a generic “You can do anything you try hard enough!” speech.

This kid wasn’t going to college, let alone getting into medical school.  So how should we handle these situations?

As a society, we’ve become obsessed with giving generic “You can do it!” and “You tried, therefore you deserve the prize” responses.  Somewhere along the line we decided we have a self-esteem crisis.  We started rewarding people for participation, not performance.  We started giving trophies to the winners and losers.

It makes everybody feel good.

It also ruins our ability to self-assess.

Back to my teaching days.  I used to teach AP psychology.  The class was designed to prepare kids for the AP test.  It required memorizing a HUGE amount of information and regurgitating it on a test (a horrible idea, by the way).  Kids would study.  They’d take the test.  Some did great.  Others failed miserably.

The kids that bombed had the same basic response- they were pissed they got a bad grade because they studied.  They assumed if they went through the motions of studying they deserved the good grade.  Participation was enough to warrant the same grade as the kids that atually answered the questions correctly.  They had absolutely no ability to critically examine their study habits and adjust course.

They had fully internalized the idea that participation would always result in success.

And that idea is probably going to ruin our country.  But I digress…

So how should we deal with others that have clearly unrealistic goals?  As parents, teachers, coaches, and mentors, we need to consider the issue.

Here’s my recommendation- honest, accurate feedback coupled with reinforcing the idea that almost anything is possible with creative problem-solving.

Let’s say my daughter comes to me and wants to be an astronaut.  I could tell her there’s no way she can overcome those odds and might as well aim lower. I’ll crush her dream and instill the idea that she might as well not even try.

Or I could tell her she can do anything because she’s super-smart, then watch helplessly as she encounters the gatekeepers that will keep her from reaching that goal.

How about this?  I explain what is needed to become an astronaut.  I give her honest feedback about her current skills and abilities, and tell her what she’d need to do to acquire the needed skills.  I would also reinforce the idea that some things may be insurmountable using the traditional route and encourage her to use creativity to find the alternate path when needed.

What do you think?


 Clinic Time!

For those of you that live around Arizona- we’ll be conducting a clinic at Summit Hut in Tucson on Tuesday, January 24th at 8pm.  For those that are attending, feel free to shoot video and share far and wide!  Hope to see you there!


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  1. Brian G
    January 23, 2012

    Don’t mean to be harsh, but isn’t this a “Well, no shit” post? Yeah, don’t let others tell you what you can or can’t do, but you do have to know yourself and not have an over-inflated sense of your abilities and your desire to put in the work to achieve a goal.

    A lot of us want to and have run ultras, but very, very few of us will ever come close to be an Anton Krupicka or any other top-notch leader in the field.

    The good thing about not listening too much to others is the freedom to achieve something that others said you can’t — but you also have the freedom to prove them correct by totally failing.

    • Jason
      January 23, 2012

      Aren’t all of my posts of the “Well, no shit” variety? 😉

    • Jesse
      January 26, 2012

      Wouldn’t this comment be a “no shit” comment?

  2. Anne
    January 23, 2012

    This post is very apt when applied to running. There has long been a school of thought that anyone can just put on a pair of trainers and run however they please. People are applauded just for making the effort to get out there and improve their fitness.

    This is all well and good, but what if they’re running with atrocious form and/or inappropriate footwear and setting themselves up for injury? In this case, the best solution would be for somebody to explain, sensitively and supportively, that the person concerned is doing something wrong – and help them correct it.

  3. Ash
    January 23, 2012

    Does this mean you’ve decided not to write your book about ultra running? 😉

  4. Rob Youngren
    January 23, 2012

    Thing is Jason from the way you’re treating me it’s clear you can’t take constructive criticism nor feedback. Instead you instantly go on the defensive and fire back at me. That’s B.S. I honestly mean no harm but I also stand by everything I said. If you really knew me you’d know that I’m always trying to help other out; to realize their own running and ultrarunning goals.

  5. Sam H
    January 23, 2012

    I had to come to this realization myself. I was in college fresh off a smashingly good vocational education where I nailed every academic portion of that training.

    I worked excruciatingly hard in my classes and kept getting the same results. Failure. My wife mentions to me that I’d be better at something else. I look into firefighting and now I’ve got a career that I enjoy.

    In that instance, it was a nudge in a different direction and thankful for it.