I Can Do It When I Try

“I Can Do It When I Try”.  That sounds like a self help book’s trite advice on success.

It is actually one of the choices I offered to my daughter a couple years ago when she was starting kindergarten.  The other choice was “I Can’t”.  I recall we were working on something relatively simple: writing the numbers one to ten.   The details of the discussion with my five year old elude me today.  However the main idea remains clear.  Throughout life you must make a conscious choice many times.  You can choose to say “I can do it when I try” or you can choose to say “I can’t“.

I kept trying to teach my daughter different ways to write the numbers.  I repeatedly asked her to practice writing the numbers.  Nothing was working and both of us grew increasingly frustrated.  I did some version of the “if you are mad, count to ten before yelling”.  That’s when I realized I was focusing on the wrong issue. Taking a step back, I understood that my daughter wasn’t trying to write her numbers at all.  I can’t blame her – the exercise was pointless to a five year old.  She didn’t care to write her numbers because it fulfilled no purpose in her five year old’s world.

That’s when I (temporarily) gave up working on the numbers exercise with my daughter.  Instead I focused on one of the best life lessons you can learn at any age.  You have to decide to care about something.  You have to decide to try.  If you don’t decide to try, it’s the same thing as deciding you can’t do something.  You might as well make a conscious choice to do one or the other.

I can do it when I try

I laid out the options on the dry erase board we were using for our numbers practice.  There were two options: “I can do it when I try” and “I can’t”.  I asked my daughter to think about which one she wanted to pick.  She had to check the box next to her choice and say her choice out loud.  Just in case she decided to get clever and choose “I can’t”, I wanted her to have to say it out loud and admit that she can’t do something as simple as write ten numbers.

It sounds pretty ridiculous when you say you can’t do something, when you haven’t even tried it.  Particularly if the task is something that could be learned or accomplished after some practice.

After flashing a little smirk and eliciting a smile from me, my daughter questioningly said “I can do it when I try”.  At this point I realized we had something big.  This was a saying one could chant!  “I can do it when I try”!  “I can do it when I try”!  “I can do it when I try”!

She really got into this self motivational chanting.  After repeating that phrase a few times, she was smiling, laughing, and confident that she could actually write her numbers from one to ten.  Now that she made an affirmative decision to try.

She successfully completed practicing her numbers that day, and has gone on to great academic success. By that I mean she’s doing well in second grade right now.


Others Trying Hard

In the last week I have seen a few noteworthy articles on the importance of trying hard.

Nick at Pretired.org writes about football teams and those deep in debt facing similar obstacles.

Most people when faced with seemingly hopeless adversity simply give up. Sure, they may keep going through the motions. They may keep “trying.” But deep in their hearts, they haven’t adopted a winning mentality. A championship mentality.

You have to adopt that championship mentality if you really want to excel.  You have to say “I can do it when I try” and mean it.  Commit to it.  Not just go through the motions.

Tom Corley at richhabits.net (and author of the book Rich Habits) writes about why you should never quit on a dream.  Tom lists all the ways he has tried, but failed to gain media attention over the years.  After tens of thousands of unsuccessful attempts, he finally makes a breakthrough.

If you were to add up all of the failures I’ve had, it would number close to 30,000 over the years. 30,000 failed attempts and four successes (NJ Star Ledger, Yahoo, Dave Ramsey and CBS). 4 for 30,000. Yet, I’m doing it. I’m succeeding. I’m making it happen.

Tom could have said “I can’t” many years ago, and he would have been absolutely right, had he given up trying.  Instead, he persevered in the face of repeated failures.  In the end, he has reached amazing success and continues to pursue his dreams.  He can do it, when he tries.

In his article entitled “17 Things That Will Push You From Middle Class To First Class“, Johnny Moneyseed lays out 17 great ways to make your life better.  Method #5: “Challenge Yourself.  Set Goals.  Plan.”

When I started this site my intention was to be able to retire within a 7 year period, by age 35. As time went on my cash flow has significantly increased, and my plans have been accelerated more than I could have imagined.

What type of voodoo sorcery pushed me toward success? The simple application of goal-setting.

Create a plan for the next year, next 5 years, 10 years, 20 years. Once you write out a finite list of things that you want to accomplish, and make those goals a priority, you’ll find that you’ll become unstoppable.

Johnny is well on his way to retiring about the same time as I did.  And with three kids like me (many think this is unpossible)!  How often do you think Johnny Moneyseed said “I can’t”?  He figured out all it takes is making a plan and trying hard to accomplish your goals.


Not long after I started blogging, I made a quick comment on someone else’s blog where they were discussing individual effort and hard work. I said

Failure is temporary. Giving up is permanent.

Big time personal finance blogger “J. Money” at budgetsaresexy.com noticed the quote and tweeted it to his followers.  Then a number of his followers, including a Senator, retweeted the quote to their followers.  At the time I made the off-hand comment, I didn’t really put much thought into it.  But it is certainly true.  You can fail over and over, but still succeed in the end, or at least learn a lot on each successive attempt.  But once you give up, once you say “I can’t”, you resign yourself to defeat.

Repeat after me.  I can do it when I try.  When you are thinking about doing something difficult, or setting out on a new challenge, recite that little mantra to yourself and I bet you can actually do it.  Maybe not on the first try, but eventually you will succeed.

You can apply this new-found “can do” attitude all over your life.  You can try.  Even if you fail once or multiple times, you can keep trying.

If you are unhappy in your job, don’t say “I can’t”.  Get a new job or ask for a promotion or change of responsibilities at your current job.  What’s the worst outcome? You are stuck in the same job you already dislike.  The best?  More money, different responsibilities, exciting opportunities.

Thinking about starting a new business or turning a side business or hobby into something you could pursue full time?  Don’t immediately say “I can’t”.  Put together a business plan, run it by your friends and contacts in your industry.  Think hard about it.  Refine your plan.  If it still makes sense, pursue your dreams!  You can do it when you try.

I decided to start this blog mostly on a whim.  My goals were to have a little fun writing about subjects I find interesting, and make enough money to cover the hosting fees.  I have certainly had fun writing and researching a number of articles here.  Financially, I have far exceeded my revenue goals.  Instead of Root of Good being a hobby that costs me money or barely breaks even, this blog might be something that can actually make money.  In my first full month of blogging, my revenue was high enough to pay 13% of my household’s ongoing living expenses during retirement.  When I started the blog two months ago, I didn’t know anything about the technology, what to write about, or how to promote my blog through social media.  However, I can do it when I try.

Now that I’m retired, I have plenty of free time to pursue all kinds of interesting things.  For example, I’m trying to get proficient in a few foreign languages.  I decided to start with French to see how that goes.  I’m using an online program to help me learn.  Each module I complete gets progressively more difficult.  The first 15 or 20 modules I completed successfully on the first try.  Then I hit a brick wall and failed the same module over and over and over.  It was frustrating, but I never said “I can’t”.  That would be silly.  Five year olds in France can speak French fluently after all.  I kept practicing the difficult module until I passed it and then kept moving through the next few modules.  Even as I failed the same module repeatedly, I learned the material better and better on each attempt.  Even in failure there is success.

My own journey to financial independence and early retirement at age 33 wasn’t easy.  It wasn’t exactly hard either.  I put together a solid plan that would get me to retirement at a relatively early age and stuck to it.  I knew where I was headed but not exactly when I would get there.  I knew I could do it if I tried.  I also knew that the downside of failing to reach my early retirement goal was pretty awesome.  If I didn’t reach early retirement (or decided to keep working forever), at least I would have a really large investment portfolio that would definitely make life easier.

Trying to reach a goal and coming up a little short is still way better than not trying at all.  Not trying means you fail.  If you aren’t going to try, you might as well say “I can’t”.  Make it explicit.  You have to make a choice, and I personally favor “I can do it when I try”.


Readers, has anyone managed to overcome adversity and reached success when it seemed impossible?  


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      1. Damn, Trom took the words right out of my mouth here ha.. I remember it being “there is no try, there is either do or do not” 🙂

        Nice article though Justin, I’ve struggled with staying focused on the course although I feel that as you say if I don’t care about something similar to your 5 year old I won’t do or try it ha..

        How is the family going now anyway?

        1. The family is doing well. Our “I can’t” little girl is now in 4th grade and scoring at the top of her class. We joke about the “I can do it when I try” slogan with her now. 🙂

        2. Yoda said “Do, or do not, there is no try”

          But all of this stems from Henry Ford “Whether you think you can, or you can’t — You’re Right”

    1. Thanks for the kind words. I realize that a lot of my anecdotes in my articles here originate out of experiences with my kids. You can learn a lot from kids. Watch them closely. They are little tabulas rasas, clean slates. Very impressionable and without preconceived notions that inhibit their learning and absorption of new ideas.

  1. Most the stuff I was able to achieve in my life came from failing miserably at first. When I was in 6th grade we started to learn English (am Romanian, so we don’t speak English routinely here ;)). My first grade was an F (I think in your system. In ours it was a 4, which is VERY bad, a failing grade, since we have them from 1 to 10). I was scared that I’ll never pass the class, since I just felt like I can’t learn the dang thing. I had studied Russian for one year (which made more sense, even with their weird alphabet) and English was clearly outside my comfort zone.

    I then decided to TRY. Have started preparing for my classes (as hard as it was for me) and the next grade was a 10. Now that’s how we roll. Have studied it till graduating high-school (and never had anything other than 9s and 10s) and even went to college to study it further. Am now writing articles and chatting with you, it’s surely far from what a native speaker can do, but pretty well compared to my humble beginnings.

    Same with my karate lessons. I was the most un-coordinated student ever, lacked stamina or any form or mobility. Worked my butt off and for 6 years had a great time and some nice results there. Just as when I started working at a radio station at 20. I was the worst DJ the city ever heard, but worked hard and had my own show for 10 years.

    Come to think of it, back in 2002 I knew nothing about web design and taught myself everything I know today. It’s my main business and I have a great time working in the industry.

    So, I’m one of the people who think that, if you put your mind to anything, you can’t be stopped. Sure, you might not be a genius or the best in the field, but at least you can accomplish something 🙂

    1. Thanks for sharing. That’s what I’m talking about. You could have quit studying English. You could have given up on martial arts. No one made you work hard to learn web design and how to be a better DJ. You made a conscious choice to try hard and achieve success.

      And congrats on your English. In your comments here and your writing at your business website, I assumed you were a native English speaker.

      1. Thank you Justin for the kind words. I still see a difference between my style and how a native speaker (well educated of course) is writing, but my skills do their job. And I have many tens of years to perfect them anyway 🙂

    2. You have very strong internal locus of control, which is synonymous with the “I can do it if I try” attitude and is key for retiring early (or doing anything else remotely successful in your life for that matter) IMHO. Hope you don’t some shameless self promotion but seeing as it’s on topic I wrote about the subject here:

      Justin, kudos for teaching such a valuable to your children at a young age.

      1. No problem on the link. Great article you have there. I definitely have an internal locus of control. We have a saying here in the US that “You can’t fight City Hall”. I beg to differ. Why give up before you even try, right? The worst that can happen is you end up failing. Which is exactly what happens every time when you make no attempt to succeed.

        1. Thank you Justin!

          Yea I’ve heard that one before actually. I always took it’s meaning literally but I see how it might be used as a kind of metaphor for a “What’s the point in trying, you won’t win” type of attitude.

          People are hugely afraid of failing, I know as I am one of them (a person… haha).

          t is hard to even overcome this fear of failure but hopefully with more and more blogs popping up like yours more people can overcome this fear and get up and do something they always wanted to do. I used to think self help books were a load of bunk (and I think most probably still are to be honest) but since I’ve started reading some more positive articles on the interweb, obviously combined with some actual practical advice on how to implement this “new way of thinking”, I am starting to think hell yea, I can do pretty much anything I want (and if I fail so what, just try again?)



          1. I don’t like self help books that much either. Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” is the only self help book I have ever read. I think its usefulness stems in part from its brevity. 🙂

  2. I can do it when I try! I can do it when I try! I can do it when I try!

    Haha… Love it man. Was having a similar conversation the other night with someone about paying for a service, vs doing it yourself. Everyone’s always concerned with saving money and doing everything yourself, while there’s something to be said for using you hours towards something you actually CARE about doing instead. Or to make more money vs the cost of the service. My friend Kathryn from Makin’ Sense Babe.com likes to say she “COULD” do something herself if she really wanted to, but she chooses not to and go on her merry way. Which, just like in your example here, is similar: Consciously making a decision about things.

    Really enjoyed this one brotha, thx.

  3. Good stuff man. I’m having a lot of trouble with our 2.5 yr old. He doesn’t want to do anything himself. We will keep working on it. He’s probably a bit too young for the I can do it if I try, but I’ll try it out.

    1. That’s a tough age! They _could_ do things on their own but don’t always want to. Let him be 2.5 for a while and maybe he will grow into more independence later.

  4. As a depressive with chronic fatigue, my approach is somewhat different, but similar. It’s “I might be able to do it if I try. And if not, I’m no worse off.” Assuming it’s not some huge energy drain, it rarely hurts to try. Unless I actually injure myself, which I kinda have a talent for.

    Another one to teach your kids might be “Yet.” I read a book where the main character had a stepson and whenever the kid said, “I don’t know” the guy would say “Yet.” Until the kid got into the habit of saying it to him. So, you could maybe transfer it to “I can’t”… “yet”

    1. “Yet” – good one. They have already grown accustomed to my stock response of “I don’t know, but I bet google knows. Let’s learn more about that.”

      Your take on I Can Do It When I Try is spot on. Rarely are you worse off for having tried something but failed. You may lose a little something (time, money) but you gained the knowledge that you could either not do the activity for sure (and no longer have that nagging doubt as to whether you could do it) or that you might be ok doing it, if you keep trying. Or maybe you figure out you just don’t like that activity.

  5. Awesome post, Justin. We are nearly a year into paying off a massive amount of debt on a “not massive” amount of income. There are many days when we feel “we can’t”, but as you mentioned, we know that we can do it if we try, so we press forward each day, continuing to try. I know that although the journey may seem impossible right now, that we really can achieve debt freedom and financial independence if we work at it. Thanks for the encouragement today, Justin. Much appreciated!

    1. That’s the right attitude! Even if you take twice as long as you hoped to pay off all that debt, you’ll still end up debt free at the end of the process. And imagine what you’ll be able to do with all the monthly income that is currently devoted to debt service and debt reduction. You can keep saving that money and let it pile up and grow over time! Good to hear your net worth is moving in the right direction, even if there is still a big slug of debt lingering on your balance sheet.

  6. I’m with you. My goal was to graduate debt free and I pulled that off! I’m now 25 and pretty financially secure. I’m very proud of this.

  7. Sometimes, life’s lessons are learned after failing. It must be that people have to have some kind of a turning point at some degree before really pushing to achieve something. Perhaps it is when people decide they would try.

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