I love the great British bake off. Every year they pitch the tent in a picturesque garden and a handful of hopefuls do battle with bread, biscuits and brandi snaps. When Nadiya Hussain won this years competition she said something very powerful and rather moving:
“I’m never gonna put boundaries on myself ever again. I’m never gonna say I can’t do it. I’m never gonna say ‘maybe’. I’m never gonna say, ‘I don’t think I can.’ I can and I will.”
It was a great speech and it even made the national newspapers.
I think it was a good speech because:
1) She won
We love a winner. When we see someone win we imagine ourselves winning, which is a good feeling.
2) She was an underdog
We love an underdog. Nadiya didn’t do well in the technical at first and certainly didn’t look like the person who was going to win. When someone looked like they were going to win it was harder to support them. I guess it’s easier to root for an underdog because we may feel like one ourselves. Nadiya did not start of that confident in her abilities, and perhaps we don’t feel that confident ours. But hey, if she was wrong, then maybe we are too. “If she can win so can I!” Or so the reasoning seems to go.
3) It had rhetorical repetition
rhetorical repetition (ok, I’m not very good at it so I’ll stop). Another strength of her speech was its rhetoric (in a positive sense). It sounds good. Good speech’s often have rhythm and repletion. “we will fight them on the beaches….we will fight them on the…”, “I had a dream….I had a dream….”, “I am never…I am never…I am never….I don’t…. I can and I will”. Brilliant. Especially has is seemed so heartfelt and spontaneous.
4) It was about principles rather than particulars
Nadiya’s speech was not so much about winning the bake off, or in fact winning at all. Rather it was more abstract and therefore more widely applicable. It is to do with not putting boundaries on yourself. It implies (or we can take it to imply) that we are better than we think we are. That we can do more than we think we can. Which is encouraging, even if you are not in a bbc baking competition. The power of the speech is the way it bursts the banks of its immediate context and speaks to the whole of life. Sports competitions do this. At their best they are not about how fast someone can run or how high they can jump. Sport is about life, dedication, sacrifice, overcoming, team work and so on.
So it was a great speech, and very motivational, but without wanting to undermine that in any way, a few things occurred to me that caused me to think a bit more about it.
1) Most people lost
Hundreds, if not thousands must have applied to take part in the program. A hand full got through to the first round. Only one person won. Why isn’t the overriding message of such a completion “You can’t so don’t”? Why don’t we look at the bake off final and conclude that the chances of winning something are so small that it’s best not to even try? If we had any concerns about our ability, or even if we are super confident, why don’t we conclude that the chances of us winning are in fact much, much lower than we thought? Of all those people who thought they could, or just might possibly win, only one was right. If its just chance, the chances are vanishingly small.
Could it not be that Nadiya was actually really talented at baking, but we are not. Her win therefore says nothing about our chances of winning.
Perhaps her winning makes us think that we could potentially be underestimating out ability. If that’s the case then a more accurate speech might be:
“being a slightly pessimistic, unconfident person, I can probably do a lot more than I think I can. I will try and remember that in future and recalibrate my expectations. I could and I might!”.
That’s not very motivational and inspiring though.
As an aside, I guess it could be that the other contests testimony might be along the lines of being really pleased to have given it a go and being pleased they tried even though they did not win. It was a great experience etc. Which is also helpful to hear but a very different sort of speech.
2) What does it apply to?
There are genuine boundaries around us limiting what we “can” do. It’s true that many of them are false, self-imposed ones, but there are even more very real ones. I can’t jump off a cliff, flap my arms and fly for example. So what boundaries does this apply to? The unqualified “I can” kicks at all boundaries indiscriminately and some are going to fall over. But some won’t and that could lead to a swollen toe or much much worse. It’s helpful to be as clear as possible about exactly which boundaries I am likely to be mistaken in.
That said, if we stick to the laws of physics at least, the “I can and I will” philosophy could very well help you achieve a lot, even though it’s not exactly true. Which begs the question, is it good to believe something false if it helps you do something you want to do?
And there is also the small question about whether the things “I will” do are right to do. I remember when I was younger walking out of an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie theatre feeling big and strong like Rambo, ready to blast away the bad guys. I felt like I could and I would. But was the film depicting something true that it was right for me to aspire to? What desires are being empowering with this speech. What fire is this fuel being poured on?
The utility of her speech is of course in the fact that anyone can take it and apply it to whatever they happen to want to do. Perhaps the context is the cultural consensus of what is right. For example “You can do anything as long as you don’t hurt people, or at least people I care about.” Maybe that way we can all share out this motivational gem. But what if someone comes along and does not play ball? What if they take all of it for themselves? What if the majority decide that the minority doesn’t get to play? Is there any absolute standard of goodness and justice to appeal to outside of ourselves?
3) What is the basis of the statement “I can and I will”
Now, here is where things really get interesting. As I have indicated, if “I can and I will” is based on the fact that Nardiya won the bake off, then it does not transfer to anyone else, or in fact to anything else Nardiya might do. But, this speech is not about biscuits. Or Nardiya, As the incredible hulk grows green, his biceps bulge and he tears off the tattered remains of his shirt. So it is with this speech. The fact that 100’s lost and only one won, does not seem to quench the flow of white hot motivational magma. It’s articulating something far more than merely winning a TV baking completion. There is a powerful principle being articulated here. So where is the compelling force of it coming from?
My concern is that this could be understood to be a very person centric statement. Ie Each of us has it in themselves to do anything we set out minds to. “Believe in yourself”. There is some truth in that but it’s ultimately false. 1000’s failed for a start. Hundreds could not do what they set their minds to. But like a deluded Apprentice contestant this principle cannot be put down so easily. Yes, you may fail several times on the way to success, but eventually you will get there. If your goal is to get rich, keep believing in yourself and you will. Even if you have to go through several bankruptcies you will get there. You can and you will. If you lose the bake-off/X factor/the voice/job/girl/lottery etc you’ll win it next time. Just keep believing. Or maybe you’ll win in another way you can’t see right now but you will win somehow somewhere in a way that will make sense of these temporary set backs.
Again though, its good as ask, is it true that we can do anything we set our minds to? If not do we really want to live a useful lie?
I feel like I’m waffling, and not being that clear. I’m just asking what the basis for this statement is. Ifs it’s that “belief” in itself is good then that’s nonsense. If it’s belief in me then that seems a bit flowed too. Or at least causes me to ask “Why should I think that I have unlimited ability to achieve anything I set my mind to?” I’m going to need more than Nardiya’s back off win to convince me of that.
I’ve heard the phrase “I can and I will”, or something like it, before. It reminds me of something the Apostle Paul wrote:
“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”. Phil 4:13
Interestingly the context here though is not winning but suffering. Paul has not just won something, or achieved something great, he is in prison facing possible execution. He has however, clearly overcome his circumstances and is rejoicing in the midst of them.
His statement is about coping with life’s challenges, well, not so much coping as rejoicing in them, and the means for doing that, the power, the force, is not Paul himself but Christ.
Paul does not leave the basis for his “I can” statement unsaid. He spells it out and his confidence is not in anything in himself, but in Christ. Now the exciting thing about that is that it is not based on anything he has that we do not have access to. It is the free grace of God available to all by faith. That is, through trusting that what God says is true. And God says that all the resources that we need, are available to us in Christ. The love, power, strength etc not just to keep our head above water but to overcome hardship and troubles and rejoice in his overflowing sufficiency.
“I can and I will” is sometimes true if we look to ourselves and our own strength. But it is always true when we look to Jesus and his strength. “I can and I will” is sometimes true if we look to our own desires and wishes. But it is always true when we consider what Jesus wants us to do.
“I can and I will” is attractive because it has the look of truth. But what makes all the difference is the substance. If our own ability (all be it underestimated) is all that is behind this statement, or even the human spirit, then it ultimately has no substance for me. This self-centred twisting of the truth is at the heart of what is wrong with the world. After all, Adam and Eve said “I can and I will eat the fruit” and they lost. But if Christ is the basis of this statement, then it has real substance. As I look at myself I despair, but as I look to Jesus I can say with confidence “I can and I will” as I trust and follow him. Extending his kingdom in his strength.
In the garden of Gethsemane, as Jesus contemplated the cross, Satan must have whispered to him “you can’t do this”, but Jesus seemed to have replied “I can and I will”, and he did. He gave his life up for all our sinful “I can and I will’s”. On the cross he overcame the worst that this world had to throw at him. And there, right in the cruel jaws of defeat he won the biggest victory ever. He is the greatest champion. He was the ultimate underdog. And through faith in him, and in him, we can be winners to, and nothing will be impossible for us (Matt 17:20).
I may be reading too much into her speech if I see Nadiya as a kind of baking, athlete, philosopher, but I enjoyed thinking about what she said. Especially as it lead me to Jesus, the one in whom I can have supreme confidence in and in whom nothing will be impossible for me.