The last time I stood up in front of a group to talk about how “it’s never too late to make mid-course corrections,” I got a bit of a surprise. I’d talked about how my own career and passions had caromed serendipitously from journalism to motherhood to law and then back to writing. I’d read from a couple of my essays about the power of encouragement and the far shores a few kind words can push you toward. I’d talked about the importance of both friendship and following your instincts. I talked about shoes…and chocolate…and power tools…and reinvention…
And the end of the evening, the words that resonated the loudest with the women who hung around to chat later were simply these. “Why the hell not?”
Why the hell not, indeed.
I’d included them in a short list of advice I like to wrap these talks up with, an exhortation to say—or at least think—reflexively in response to the naysayers who can shoot down your dreams and your hopes with just a put-down or two. Say the words out loud, I said. Then say them louder!!! Repeat after me…when someone tells you can’t do something…“why the hell not?”
The weight of discouragement can be absolutely crippling if you let it. One woman at the library where I spoke that night talked later about her experience during a divorce many years earlier. Contemplating going back to school, she confided to her divorce attorney that she thought about applying to law school.
“Oh, you can’t do that,” he scoffed. Now, she wasn’t naïve. She already had a college degree. But nonetheless, as quick as that, her hope and her promise was snuffed out. She unfortunately believed him. She went on to train as a paralegal and worked for years in that field, but she eventually was downsized out of that job, and once again she was pounding the pavement looking for work. Her confidence was palpably low. How different might her path have turned out had not her divorce lawyer, her advocate, her champion during a difficult time, responded differently. Or if she had thought…or known..to push back, to say “just wait a minute here. Why the hell not?”
Sometimes the voices we need to push back against come from the outside. Friends, relatives, spouses, rivals. Sometimes the discouragement is deliberate, a sabotaging of any change to the familiar status quo. My ex-husband (we were still married at the time) had two essential opinions about the idea of my applying to law school as a soccer mom with four kids. First and foremost, was the admonition that the law school would never admit me as a part-time student. Tradition could not be overcome. Ergo, “you can’t do that.” And second, even if I was admitted to the school, I wouldn’t perform very well there. Fortunately, he was wrong on both counts.
Sometimes the discouragement is unintentional, a failure of imagination by someone who knows you—and perhaps even loves you—in one role to be able to imagine you in another.
And sometimes the voices we need to push back are the ones from inside our head, the voices of fear and doubt that were drilled into us by…who even knows how many familial and cultural influences that poured over us and into us from the time we were born. Those can be the most stifling voices of all, the hardest ones to push back against, the most important ones to stop and question. I admit that when I was admitted to law school two decades ago, I had no expectation of achieving good grades. I could have used the “why the hell not?” pep talk myself back then.
I repeat those words far more often to myself these days, sort of my first fallback position to familiar, instinctive, even primordial feelings of self-doubt. Write a children’s book about a cat on spec and and then try to find a traditional publisher? Why the hell not. Hang my nature photos in frames in an art studio? Why the hell not. Start exploring the idea of a trip to Cuba although I don’t speak Spanish? Why the hell not.
And in new frontiers, I am about to start shopping for a pair of proper ballroom dancing shoes to wear during the lessons I’ve been taking recently since the move. After a particularly frustrating lesson in the foxtrot that involved a couple of spins in quick succession, the instructor looked at the casual (though incredibly comfortable) flats I was wearing and informed me that “your shoes are holding you back.”
I have a general sense that the dancing shoes I seek will have sueded soles so that I can manage a spin on the wood floor with far less effort and drag. I am also quite aware from experience twirling around at those Viennese Balls a few years ago that for my particular brain, one spin is fine…but two leaves me dizzy. Without fail. As sure as gravity.
And yet…I know I’m going to get the shoes. My question is no longer whether I’ll buy them at all and possibly spin myself into disaster, but rather, what heel height I should pick. Because darn it, I just have the feeling that if I practice enough, I’ll eventually get that fancy turn mastered.
Really…why the hell not?