Monday, March 29, 2010

As Henry Ford says, even small successes and failures are a self-fulfilling prophesy

Henry Ford allegedly said “If you think you can do a thing or think you can't do a thing, you're right.” I was thinking about this oft-repeated quotation while I was out running yesterday afternoon as I struggled to get to the 1.5 mile mark. I, who a few years ago ran a 13-mile circuit every weekend. I, who for that matter ran four slightly hilly Carlisle miles on Saturday and four significantly hilly miles in midcoast Maine on Friday. Yet yesterday I spent the morning and midday telling myself I didn’t feel like I could do much of a run that day. And sure enough, when I set out, it turned out I was right.

When I tell myself I can run six miles, I can do it. When I tell myself I’ll struggle with two, that’s what happens. Just as Henry Ford said, time and again what I tell myself I can do turns out to be what I can do. And the same for what I tell myself I can’t do.

That quote seemed to reflect other parts of my weekend too. Sunday was the fourth week of teaching Sunday school for me. Our church’s religious education program runs on a model of rotating volunteers: one parent of each child in the class signs up for four weeks at a time. My stint hadn’t been going too well. I was having trouble composing lesson plans from week to week even with the RE Director’s help. I couldn’t seem to keep the kids’ attention or maintain order from one week to the next; nor could I get excited about what I was trying to teach, even though I was free to design my own lessons within the general theme of the curriculum.

So I formed the idea at the beginning of the month it wouldn’t go well, and having done so, I found that was the case. But yesterday, the last of my four-week commitment, I was determined to re-chart the course. Acknowledging that the kids really did do better with hands-on activities than a more pedantic or discussion-oriented approach, I was all set with an art project for them to do. I felt bolstered about it being my final week, and I was even a little bit encouraged by how some of our discussion time had gone the previous week. So I went in ready for a good class, and we had a good class. Not a great one, but a reasonably reflective and intellectually fruitful one. My prophesy self-fulfilled.

Most significantly this weekend, there was the furniture. My parents very generously just gave us a sectional couch and a bed, which we brought home on Saturday morning. But we hadn’t come up with a plan for how to get the new furniture from our truck into the house and up to the second floor. We’d halfheartedly pursued estimates from a few movers, but each company had a minimum charge that made it impractical to pay to move just two pieces of furniture. I was wary of the Craigslist approach and received no response from our local list-serve when I advertised for strong teens or college students to help out. So the furniture arrived Saturday morning but we still hadn’t figured out how to get it into the house, along with the corollary task of getting an old couch and chair from our second floor out of the house.

And yet my husband Rick went into it with the attitude that if we needed to do it, we could do it. Just as Henry Ford said, Rick believed we could do it and he was right. Though to look at the furniture now, it’s still hard to fathom how we managed, the four of us somehow did all the furniture moving ourselves. Rick and Holly devised a slide out of couch cushions and towels that helped them ease the old furniture down the stairs and out the door. Rick and Tim together hefted the new sectional in through the sliders and up the stairs inch by inch. That’s how we did the bed too, only I was on hand to help with that one. With Rick at one end of the bed and Tim and me at the other, we just lifted, lugged, hefted and shoved, literally inch by inch, until it was up the stairs and into the guest room.

Thinking we could do it, we did it. I was reminded of the Anne Lamott expression (and book title) Bird by Bird: When you need to write a report about birds, write it one bird at a time. When you need to move a couch, no matter how much you think you don’t quite have the requisite muscle power, move it inch by inch. In a way, once we got started, it seemed as if there was no way we could fail. One inch? Any team of people could move a couch one inch. We just had to do it over and over again until it was in place.

So I’m going to try to maintain this philosophy into the new week. Earlier this month I wrote about solving problems by anticipating them: one thing that helped me cope with the big flood we experienced in mid-March was figuring out what the particular challenges were – getting the kids to the bus stop, feeding the animals – and posing possible solutions one at a time. But this week I’m going to try the opposite approach. Rather than writing about the concern I’ll miss an article deadline or arrive at a meeting unprepared, I’ll go into it the Henry Ford way, telling myself I can do it. And I’ll hope that he’s right that I’m right.

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