‘I could do that, if I really wanted to.’

We’ve all used this excuse before. What’s your favorite application?

  • Starting a business
  • Going back to school
  • Becoming a professional actor, artist, or musician
  • Running a marathon
  • Writing a book

This excuse conveniently allows us to overestimate our capabilities without any actual experience to prove us wrong. It’s a ‘get out of jail free’ card.

‘If I really wanted to’ shifts the blame for our dreams not coming true to a benign scapegoat, and attempts to maintain the appearance of potential without testing our actual ability. It’s not that we can’t – it’s that we won’t – and ‘won’t’ safely speaks to our will instead of our skill.

But the most unfortunate thing about this excuse is that it eventually leads to apathy. ‘If I really wanted to’ easily morphs into ‘if I cared enough to try,’ and not caring is both easier and a lot less scary than daring to care.

Apathy is a safe place to hide when opportunity knocks.

It prevents us from being forced to try, or having to acknowledge that we’re afraid to find out if we’ve really got what it takes. It’s in those moments that the ‘what if’ questions loom large, and apathy can hijack our potential:

  • What if I’m not the entrepreneur I’ve always considered myself to be?
  • What if standardized test scores indicate that I’m not as smart as I think I am?
  • What if I lack the innate talent necessary to make it?
  • What if I drop out of the race?
  • What if my manuscript gets rejected or nobody reads it?
  • What if I try and I fail? What if other people see that happen?

These questions play on our fear of finding out what we’re really made of and entice us to embrace apathy. The result is often a lack of decision. This is the ‘myth of what if:’

We think that if we don’t do anything, we can prevent the occurrence of any ‘what ifs’ and comfortably hold on to our ‘get out of jail free’ cards.

But that’s not true.

Not doing anything is its own decision. While it prevents the ‘what ifs,’ it also keeps us from realizing that we’re not really fooling anybody. In reality, we all recognize ‘get out of jail free’ cards for what they are – poor excuses. Consequently, apathy ultimately leads to being a ‘fake somebody.’

“I always thought it’d be better to be a fake somebody than a real nobody.” – Matt Damon as Tom Ripley in The Talented Mr. Ripley, describing why he is an underachieving imposter

Refuse to allow apathy to steal your potential.

Start by scrapping the ‘if I really wanted to’ excuse. If you have a dream, muster the courage to own it and acknowledge the uncertainties that come with it. I know this can be difficult – it took me years to embrace my desire to be an author/speaker.

Next, neutralize failure. Though formal education teaches us to avoid failure at all costs, it’s actually the foundation of all success. If you’re to succeed, you’ll have to face it. But rest assured – as Dale Carnegie observes, “Discouragement and failure are two of the surest stepping stones to success.”

Finally, try. Engage. Start swinging the bat. There’s simply no chance of success unless you do. Adopt the sentiment shared by basketball great Michael Jordan, “I can accept failure, everyone fails at something. But I can’t accept not trying.”

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