Success is more about doing what others have not thought to do, than it is about trying to do what literally can’t be done.
No one knows how many great concepts, ideas, careers and enterprises have languished because individuals have fallen prey to the admonition of others that what they want to do “can’t be done.”
It is true that there may be many things we can’t do, but that has more to do with physical attributes – or lack thereof – than it does the ability to do something that has not been done. For example, you’ll probably never be able to throw a 97-mile-per-hour fastball no matter how fervently you may want to. You probably can’t hit a 97-mile-per-hour fastball either. But when you put those physical attributes aside, most of those who tell you that what you want to do can’t be done, it is simply because they don’t know how to do it. The assumption is that if they can’t do it, then you can’t do it either. And in the end, this is what separates success from failure, winners from losers.

New Rules for What Can be Done
Doing what others think can’t be done requires three crucial ingredients. First, you need the capacity to recognize when the rules that defined what could or could not be done have become outmoded and should no longer be followed. Second, the timing has to be right to do what others believe can’t be done. Thirdly, those who are successful doing what others say can’t be done also have a plan for how to do it. But with knowledge, good timing, creative planning and effort, it is amazing what can be done.
Nowadays, we have a name for those prescient individuals who capture these three attributes. They’re called “disruptive innovators.” And they’re radically changing the very definition of what can and cannot be done in business.

We take the existence of FedEx and the services it provides for granted now, but that was not the case in 1965 when Fred Smith envisioned a company that could deliver packages and letters overnight. No one in the “mail” business, or any other business for that matter, believed it could be done. Not even in 1971, when on its first day of operation FedEx used 14 planes to deliver 186 packages to 25 different cities, did many believe it could be done consistently. From conception to execution, Fred Smith heard only “you can’t do that.” Yet, that idea that couldn’t be done was done and in a short 10 years FedEx changed the definition of “mail” and became the first company to generate over $1 billion in revenues. Talk about disruptive innovation. FedEx is the very definition.

The reality is that if Fred Smith had proposed his idea in 1950, the naysayers would have been right – it couldn’t have been done. The technologies and facilities to support his idea simply did not exist. So the rule, “you can’t do that” would have been valid. But Fred Smith was in the right place at the right time to break the rule, because technology was available to make it possible. In 1965 Smith was not the only person who could have created an overnight delivery service, but he was the only one who recognized that the “you can’t do that” rule was obsolete; even more importantly, he was the only one who figured out how to do it.

“You Can’t Do That” Is Personal

The reason I find the “you can’t do that” admonishment so annoying is probably because I’ve heard it so often in my career. This was especially true when I formed a small group to start a new life insurance company in 1987. At the time there were well over 1,000 life insurance companies operating in the United States and the industry was dominated by over 50, well-established insurance giants. There seemed little need or opportunity for a new life insurance company. On top of that, the natural barriers to entry in the insurance industry such as heavy regulation and the need for huge amounts of invested capital, made formation of a new company almost as impossible as many thought. Almost.

I guess it should not have been a surprise that every time I broached the idea of a new life insurance company it was greeted with, “You can’t do that.” But the truth was another story. The established giants of the industry looked strong – even invincible – from the outside, but the reality was that they were weakened by slumbering in a world that was awake with change. The insurance industry had done so well for so long (with little real competition) the leaders of the industry failed to recognize changes taking place in the market and even when they did, chose to ignore them. They were wedded to doing what they had always done because that had always been what they did; the status quo was pleasingly comfortable. Only when problems became obvious to everyone did a clarion call emerge from industry leaders suggesting the solution was to, “get back to the basics.” What these industry leaders sadly did not realize, however, was that the basics of their industry had changed.

It turned out that this was the perfect time to start a new life insurance company. Not a company to do what the other companies were doing, but a company with a plan to do what most said couldn’t be done by taking a different approach to products, distribution and corporate culture.

And it worked.

As the established giants in the insurance industry began to teeter and even fail, our company – LifeUSA – formed as a new life insurance company not only survived but became one of the most successful companies in the industry. It is fair to say that by focusing on products that rewarded people for living, rather than dying, LifeUSA forced the entire insurance industry to change.

As with FedEx, LifeUSA could not have happened even 10 years earlier, but the timing was right and even more important was that the timing of the moment was recognized and a plan to take advantage of the moment was offered, even though all were saying, “You can’t do that.”

Never be discouraged by the naysayers who want to tell you that you can’t do that. In truth, the more who tell you so, the more likely is the opportunity to do what they say can’t be done. Always remember that most will tell you that it can’t be done because they have not thought to do it and even if they have, they have no plan to do it. In reality, you only can’t do something if you don’t know how to do it. If you can recognize the right time to do what has not been done and have a plan to do it, you can do what others say can’t be done.

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Whether you think you can or think you can’t—you are right.

“Can’t” is a word that shouldn’t be a part of anyone’s vocabulary. I refuse to believe that things can’t be done. Even in the popular saying, only an apostrophe makes the difference between impossible and I’m possible. Have you ever noticed that some people are sometimes a little too quick to tell you why something can’t be achieved? It might be embarking on a type of project you’ve never done before. Creating a new product, launching into a new country, or even applying for a great new job. Or any number of endeavors. Can’t is a word used by people who are just projecting their own fears out into the world. By doom and gloom merchants. By people who can’t see past their present limitations, not taking into account that given the right mentality that, they too, can begin manifesting their dreams at a rapid pace. It’s much easier to make excuses not to do something big and overwhelming than to simply put one foot in front of the other and start chipping away at the not-so-glam work of making your dreams come true. Why do people do that? It’s probably fear of making a mistake. Fear of failure. Fear of embarrassment. Maybe they’re fearful of change. I think it’s a total normal and healthy human response to feel all of these things when embarking into the unknown, when taking risks. But if you recognize that this fear is just a passing emotion that doesn’t necessarily have to chain you to not making any moves, then you might be able to set yourself free. Miracles are just a shift in perception from fear to love. For some people it’s just safer to do nothing rather than try something new. They can maintain the status quo. They don’t want to rock the boat. They’re in their comfort zone. But, life only really begins at the end of your comfort zone. It’s overwhelming to imagine what a different world we would be living in if everyone listened to those who said it can’t be done. It used to be thought that it was not humanly possible to run a mile in less than four minutes. But on May 6th, 1954 English runner Roger Bannister broke the four-minute barrier with a time of 3:59.4. Now it’s almost commonplace. Some high-schoolers have accomplished it—and the current record is 3:43.13. Soaring through the air in a flying machine. Can’t be done, said the skeptics including the Wright Brothers’ own father who scoffed at the idea saying that they should leave flying to the birds. Going into space? Can’t be done, declared the British Astronomer Royal just two years before the Russians started the space age with the launch of Sputnik 1. Landing on the moon within 50 years? Can’t be done, said a whopping 70 percent of Americans in a 1949 Gallup poll. An inspirational president and NASA proved them wrong. Can’t is an ugly word. It should be banished from our vocabulary. Mindset is everything. By simply making some minor adjustments to how we think and removing the negative thoughts we tell ourselves that leave us in a place ruled by fear, we can make great strides towards our desired end result. Anything is possible if you have a clear vision and are willing to do the work. So try out a little experiment with yourself. Attempt to not use the word “can’t” for a day to see what happens. I bet you’ll be surprised. I’d go out on a limb to say that I bet by making a few slight adjustments to your internal dialogue that new opportunities will present themselves and you will absolutely obtain new levels of confidence. I’ve never accepted that I can’t accomplish what I set out to do. There’s simply no room for can’t in my life. Whenever I’ve been told that something is impossible or something simply can’t be done I just smile and say “Watch me.” Henry Ford was someone else who proved the cynics wrong and he said: Whether you think you can or think you can’t—you are right. I take it even simpler than that. The day you feel your desires, will, ambition, passion dictate a purpose, you become limitless. And, then there isn’t a single thing that can stop you.

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