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Narrow perspectives and low expectations, Part 4

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By Jim Thompson
HCP columnist

How many times have you heard someone say, “But I can’t?” Most “I can’t” statements are not that a person really can’t, but something is holding them back. Lack of confidence, clinging to traditions or many other things.

I had a boss one time who said, “We operate by the ‘Two can’t principle’ around here. If you can’t do it, you can’t stay.”

It happened to be my new job was to keep three neglected paper machines, four boilers, a dozen printing presses and sundry other machinery running 24/7. Nineteen acres of neglected, worn-out equipment under one roof. Ended up doing a lot of things I didn’t think I could working for him – but I prevailed.

If you ever start a business, you will learn that you can’t say "I can’t." I had a couple of businesses when I was young, but they were side businesses to a steady paycheck. The ability to say “I can’t” was present, but muted.

Once you decide to go out on your own, that is, drop the paycheck, you find out “I can’t” no longer works. It can be quite a startling revelation if you have never done it before. It may take one, or in my case (slow learner) two, business failures to learn you not only can but you must.

Back when all telephones were land lines (yes, children, dinosaurs roamed the earth in those days), I had a great fear of making a phone call. It started as a teenager. I have no idea how high-schoolers get dates these days, but when I was a teenager the idea of calling a girl was completely off my list of skills. It didn’t help that our only phone was in my parents’ bedroom! Later, when I actually had a girlfriend, our only phone was hanging on the wall in my parents’ kitchen. I told my mother I would pay the extra dollar per month to have a phone in my bedroom.

Giving speeches falls in the same category. Many surveys have been conducted returning results that say most people would rather die than give a speech.

Also, in the category of “I can’ts” for farm kids is helping a cow have a calf or a sow have pigs. You learn that you must – and you can. Having moved to a farm as a 12-year-old and not previously being around farm animals, it was an adjustment to reach out and touch these facts of life.

I am wandering here, but I what I want to say is most of our “can’ts” are not real and not physical. They are between our ears. We foolishly think we are not smart enough, rich enough, sophisticated enough and so forth, hence, we can’t. This is simply not true.

I have known a number of people of average intelligence who have had extraordinary achievements. Being poor is one of the best drivers there is for attaining wealth (note – I don’t recommend this as a sole goal). Sophistication is not all it is cracked up to be. My mother taught me all I needed to know about sophistication (when you are seated at a table with multiple utensils, always work from the outside in).

I was not a great student in college. As I stated in the first column in this series, modern music was nearly my downfall. I spent my freshman year of college listening to modern music in my dorm room or the dorm rooms of my friends, to the neglect of my studies.

As an engineering student, that was disastrous, for everything you learn in your upper years is based on the foundational first year of classes, and, more importantly, your deep understanding of the subjects in those classes. I barely graduated – next to the bottom in my class.

However, today, my expertise is incorporating engineering principles into concise, lucid, 100-page reports that encourage financiers to lend money – lots of money – to new paper mill projects. In the last 30 years, I’ve done this about 18 to 20 times. In this role, I also have to give speeches in front of perspective investors about the merits of the project at hand – solid speeches with a strong, confident voice. I am paid very well to do this.

At the financial closing for these projects, there is often a “closing dinner.” At a recent one, in a very fancy restaurant (with many spoons, knives and forks – but I knew what to do), the head banker for whom I have done projects for many years proposed a toast to me.

He said something like, “Jim’s hard work makes these deals easy.”

I muttered, “I am merely a farm boy from southern Ohio.” I was serious, but everyone laughed and thought I was making a joke.

I didn’t add that I was once afraid to make phone calls, make speeches, barely made it through college or had a couple of business failures under my belt. I didn’t think it would add anything to the moment.

Yes, you can.

Jim Thompson, formerly of Marshall, is a graduate of Hillsboro High School and the University of Cincinnati. He resides in Duluth, Ga. and is a columnist for The Highland County Press. He may be reached at

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