If You Think You Can And You Try Very Hard

"If You Think You Can And You Try Very Hard You Will Make It"

This is an Americanism you see in many movies and children in the US are actually educated with this mentality.

I don't think it's only Americans. At least it's very common in Israelis of my acquaintance. One Israeli project manager, when confronted with the fact that his project deadlines were unquestionably scuppered by a ridiculous architectural choice (FatBottomedArchitecture), sent out an email to all team leads that swore undying faith in his baseless GanttCharts and finished with "Bob the Builder! Can we fix it? Bob the Builder! YES WE CAN!

When I stopped in with him about 6 months later, they hadn't ... but working hard! Trying hard! Damn the staff churn, we're gonna get this thing Done! Bob the Builder ...

What caught my attention was a little train that had to climb a mountain; nobody thought he could do it, so they warned him not to. He tried it anyway, with a lot of effort of course. And in the mean time he said to himself "I think I can" (it sounds like a train, get it?). At the end, the train did it and everyone were happy. While we do often indoctrinate our children with this attitude, this is not the story of TheLittleEngineThatCould. In Watty Piper's original telling, nobody told the little engine she couldn't make it over the mountain. See also TheLittleEngineThatCould.

It is a really powerful way to motivate people to do things in the future. Not the things you want them to do, but the things they want do to.

It's also an irritating way of passing the buck that some "management/personal development" trainers have. The assumption that "anyone can do it if they try hard enough" means that when someone can't do it, it can't be a problem with the training or the methodology presented by it, it must be because they didn't try hard enough. The blame moves from the trainer to the individual. Sometimes it just can't be done, and it's important to recognize that, too

This shows up in sports metaphors as well; players/teams don't win because they have more talent or better fortune, they win because they have guts, determination, character. I think it was Bill James who translated the meme as "They win because they are better people" which casts the attitude in a different light.

Shows up in socioeconomics as well. Quite a few people (particularly in the UnitedStates, though I question whether or not this is uniquely American) like to equate wealth and success - and conversely, equate poverty with failure. As a consequence, progressive economic policies are seen as "promoting failure", social Darwinism is seen as enlightened, the indigent are often regarded as lazy, shiftless bums (who could be fabulously wealthy, if only they worked harder) rather than victims of socioeconomic circumstance, and the various ways some of the wealthy become wealthy (inheritance/birth, economic exploitation of the poor, outright graft/fraud) are glossed over. Of course, it is laughable to claim that a two-year old child, living in a ghetto, is the architect of his/her own misery; likewise it is laughable for someone born to a wealthy family to claim to be a "self-made man". Or as columnist Molly Ivins once famously said of GeorgeBush (may have been the father, not the current president), "he was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple".

That said, the opposite meme (namely that one is utterly powerless to do much about one's own circumstances, other than through collective political action designed to address alledged inequtities in society), strikes me to be equally as much of an AntiPattern.

[Despite the negative interpretations, the intended point of the children's story is to encourage exercise of free will in a way that makes one a better person, able to accomplish things that otherwise could not. It is not about whether one is born a better person, it is about opposite.]

Yes, I think that's clear. But there's more to this than one story.

Of course, if at the end, the train failed to climb the mountain, even after repeating the mantra "I think I can" a million times... it won't make a good story so it won't get told. Even if the train got stuck in the middle for a week until the rescue team comes, blocking the only railroad to some places and some people starving in the mean... Nope, this is not a good story and won't be told, only the successful ones where everyone were happy gets repeated.

Actually, this story did get told in a very popular children's book. One of the Little House on the Prairie books dwells on the starvation of a town after the railroad failed to get food across the prairie.

Exactly the kind of thinking that leads to HeroicProgramming, because IfYouThinkYouCanAndYouTryVeryHard you can make an impossible project work, right? Go ahead, just do another 80+ hour week and you can finish the project.

While it is a really powerful way to motivate people to do things in the future, it is also a really powerful way to pressure individuals to take risks they are not authorized or responsible to take.

There's a difference between what the PointyHairedBoss calls a CanDo attitude and what really is CanDo. The PointyHairedBoss thinks that if you believe you can, you'll make it. In reality, CanDo means we examine the problem, determine what would be necessary to solve it, and then do so. In other words, we engineer a solution. The PointyHairedBoss ignores the problem and hopes it'll go away. CanDo means we stop saying the problem is a necessary evil, but rather tackle it and find a way to solve it.

Cool, I have this project that my programmer thinks he can do in 6 months. Now you go use your CanDo attitude to "engineer a solution" so you can finish the project in 2 months. I look forward to see how you tackle this particular problem. Sarcasm aside, I fail to see what is the difference.

The difference is that I'm not going to tell you I can do it in 2 months unless I really believe it's possible. But I'm also not going to tell you I can't do it, if I actually can. Even engineers get caught in the rut sometimes, reacting with a knee's jerk instead of analyzing the problem based on available data. But the PointyHairedBoss tends to confuse analysis with blind faith, thinking that believing against hope is worth more than it is.

A problem I see is that sometimes it "works." Afterwards everyone's tired, the code is rubbish, and unmaintainable, but the user has angrily passed off on the functionality in question and we're saved. Everyone gets a pat on the back for Trying So Hard and the project manager just learned that sometimes IfYouThinkYouCanAndYouTryVeryHard you can get it done.

I think that SoftwareCostIsEasyToUnderestimate. -- DustinAleksiuk

You say that as if it were the exception. In my experience very little worth doing works without first thinking I can and trying very hard. Those two preconditions have nothing to do with code being rubbish or unmaintainable. What's wrong with thinking you can and trying very hard? -- EricHodges

That's a good point. I'm a firm believer in trying very hard. I was really reacting to the comment about using IfYouThinkYouCanAndYouTryVeryHard as a tool to make people do too much in an unreasonable amount of time. -- Dustin

The problem isn't thinking you can and trying very hard. The problem is thinking that trying very hard is magic. Some things are impossible. Other things are just improbable. No amount of effort can change those facts. The premise behind this page is flawed. Trying very hard is the only way to accomplish some things. This isn't a flaw with America or an unreasonable lesson for children. Some things that seem impossible are merely improbable and the difference isn't discovered until someone thinks they can and tries very hard. -- EricHodges

What's wrong with this page is that the statement should be "If You Think You Can And You Try Very Hard You MAY Make It". Failing to recognize what you are trying to do might be really impossible can cause yourself and others great harm. This is not to say you should not try hard, but you should be aware of the possibility of failure in the process.

May I suggest the alternative "KnowThatItIsDone?" and it will happen.

In my own experience, certainty, not effort, has accomplished more.

But there is a difference between "is true" and "has accomplished more."

I think it's worthwhile to recognize that there's an energy that comes with saying, "No matter what, this is going to get done," that is qualitatively different than saying, "Hmm, I'll try this out..." But I wouldn't say that it guarantees success, by any means.

If I had to advise someone about the most useful approach, I would always prefer KnowThatItIsDone? over TryHard?. Exertion of effort leads to exhaustion, but not necessarily accomplishment. The decision or certainty that something is done dramatically reduces the total amount of effort needed, if only because the counter-effort injected into the activity by he who is uncertain will no longer be a factor.

Just the reduction of waste energy, with no other changes, will boost accomplishment outcomes. Some will confuse this with "PositiveThinking?" but that's not what this is. It's not magic. It's still necessary to do the work. What's not necessary is authoring your own hobbles as you strive to do that work. The key is "certainty of what" and "certainty of how," and even when "how" is unclear, "certainty of what" is vital.

Of course, one would be foolish to think that all that is possible is what has been already been done.


I thought (from the likes of Discovery channel stuff) the above was conceived as a project when science pointed to many reasons why manned mission to the moon would not work. It did work later on.

OTOH, StarWarsProject? appear to be one that will have to be completed by a non HomoSapiens? race.

"If You Don't Think You Can So You Don't Try Very Hard You Probably Won't Make It", if you will excuse my negativity.

I take this message from the title ( IfYouThinkYouCanAndYouTryVeryHard ):

-- DonaldNoyes

See: PeopleAreTheProblem TheProcessIsTheProblem CanDo IsureCan The SimpleMinded Approach: DoWhatYouKnow


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