To Get To “Can” Start With “Try”


When I was in middle school, I was invited to join a swim team at the pool where I had been taking swim lessons. I think I considered the possibility for about half-a-second, and promptly decided “I’m not interested.”

Looking back, it’s clear that I was interested. But in addition to being interested, eager, curious, excited at the possibility, intrigued—I was also more than a little scared. That’s right, my first reaction was one of fear. You know, self-doubt: Could I do it? Was I competent enough a swimmer? Would it be too hard for me to succeed at it? Questions that really I had no way of knowing the answers to without trying it out.

But I guess even the possibility of failure was too daunting, too threatening to me at that vulnerable age. An age when I was trying to hold everything together in the midst of huge familial changes—including saying farewell to my violent father in Atlanta, Georgia, and picking up and moving to where my new stepdad lived in Madison, Wisconsin.

I did mention that I was invited, didn’t I? The coach of the swim team extended an invitation to me. He saw me swim, perhaps had some idea of what I was capable of. Maybe he thought I had a swimmer’s body or that I held potential as a competitive swimmer? I don’t know. I didn’t have the courage to explore it further.

And for me, the sad part of the story is that no one pushed me to try it.


The young teen version of me. Circa freshman year at Madison West High School, 1978.

Today, I have come to the conclusion that one part of a parent’s job is to push their child. I don’t mean putting huge amounts of pressure on a child to perform or “succeed.” I don’t mean railing on a child to practice her piano two-hours a day six days a week. I don’t mean berating a child for how he missed that play at the little league game.

I do mean, holding out for a child the notion that they CAN. And that sometimes the only way to get to CAN is to start with TRY. I think it’s quite common for a young one to have self-doubts, after all, they’ve been raised in a competitive society. One that rewards “success” but not failure or trying.


Lea (upper right) in her 4th grade classroom at the local elementary school.

My daughter is currently attending 4th grade in a public elementary school in a small village in central Mexico. Aside from a brief English class a couple days a week, every single word uttered in the classroom is in Spanish, a language my daughter is learning as a second language. And there are days when she feels discouraged and feels like she can’t do it. And on those days (or those nights) I listen to her and hold her while she sheds a tear and tells me about her struggles. It’s not unusual for her to not completely understand what the teacher wants from her or what the homework is. I sometimes sit with her for a couple hours after school as she struggles through her homework—reading and writing in Spanish.

I wish someone had said to me, “Brian, I can understand that you might feel scared or challenged by the prospect of being part of a swim team. But I want you to try it. Give it a try and see. I believe in you and I believe you can do it. Why not give it a try?”Canterbury Woods at Mosby Woods - 1497 

But no one said that to me, at least not in a way I could hear it. One way I can resolve that legacy is to try and be that voice for my daughter and others, and with a lot of luck and a little bit of grace, maybe, just maybe, they’ll be able to hear it. And go from try to can.

How have you been pushed in ways that have helped you to grow? How did it feel? How have you helped push others to grow? How does it feel to do that? Chime in with your response below.

Photo credits: Scott* via CompfightC-Serpents via Compfight