We Can Only Do What We Can Do

I went to visit an old friend the other night, to let her off the hook.  She’d volunteered to help me as a hands-on business adviser to get my nonprofit off the ground a few years ago and found it impossible, partly because I sometimes resisted the strong opinions of this overbooked, talented, business woman and entrepreneur.  I went to release her from a promise it was impossible for her, or anyone in her position, to keep.  

I also was intent on telling her, though it’s taken me years to realize this seemingly simple thing:  people can only do what they can do and it’s ridiculous and self-defeating to be deflated or disappointed when they cannot do what they cannot do.  It’s also Einstein’s definition of insanity to continue in this loop: if someone shows repeatedly that they can’t do a particular thing, expecting them to be able to do it the next time, and getting pissed off again when they don’t, is the definition of insanity, or at least a foolproof recipe for it.

I visited to let her off the hook gently and resume our old, warm, comfortable friendship without the iceberg of my life’s biggest and best idea looming coldly in the way.  I went to tell her I recognize she had the best of intentions to help and express my appreciation for her willingness to help. Explain that I understand– seeing my plans through her framework of business success it’s hard to see my efforts to date as anything but the objective failures of someone unwilling to listen to even the best advice.  Until I can find colleagues I can inspire about my actual idea, and who become as excited as I am about the workings of the autonomous factory for creative play, I will never be able to move things forward very far or at more than a snail’s pace.

“Do you realize how hard you are to work with?”, she asked me with a smile, as determined to help, in spite of my attempts to reframe things, as I am to sell a philosophical system when all anyone can ever sell is a product the market will buy.  Her view is that my product cannot be so specific, it has to have the widest possible generic appeal so I can cold call hundreds of schools, marketing to them in familiar terms they are comfortable with, using professionally prepared targeted mailings and sample videos on enclosed thumb drives, and not putting them off with a radical approach, my sketchy, too candid, rambling, semi-depressing, too long sales rap and a maddeningly specific idea for exactly what I want to do and the specific places where I am willing to do it.

She had a legal pad out now, made two columns.  We were starting at the beginning, asset column, liability column.  Although I’d come to socialize, and protested that, she was determined to help, even after I told her I realize it’s absurd to rely on friends who don’t share the vision I am struggling to turn into a product for sale, a vision I am still struggling to pithily package.  I let her help me, sure, why not?  

She listed my assets: program and skills to run it, law degree, $8,000 donated dollars in the corporate war chest.  Then a light bulb went on over her head and she got excited.  My rent stabilized apartment!  I am sitting on a ‘cash cow’, if only I’d take the bold steps of violating the law and risking eviction, this was a tremendous resource as an illegal air B & B!  Hire a cleaning company, put everything in storage, have the landlord do all repairs, plaster and paint, have the floors done, buy furniture at Ikea.  I could then, from the proceeds of renting my illegal hotel suite, fund the salary for a professional partner, although, of course, I’d have to factor in bribing the superintendent of the building and use a fake name under which to solicit and accept the money, cash only, probably get a burner phone under a fake name, too.  

I expressed reservations, typical of my fearful, risk-averse nature, first of which was the constant presence of the shady superintendent who sees all comings and goings and would certainly notice people with suitcases walking up two flights, back down with suitcases, different people with new suitcases coming and going. 

“Do you do favors for the super?”  she asked.  A creative entrepreneur must be fearless and resourceful, her body language said to me.

“What, like help him take out the garbage?”  I said.

“No, I mean are you friendly to him, give him tips, take care of him, you know, do you have a good relationship with him?” 

“I guess so, we exchange wisecracks when we pass each other, I’ve made him laugh a couple of times, he’s sometimes funny,” I said, “but I don’t trust him.  Even if he was getting a cut of every guest’s cash payment, I wouldn’t trust him.  Especially then, I suppose.  Can you trust someone you have to bribe, someone who would take a bribe?”  We put the cash cow to the side, I told her I’d think about it.

Then, for purposes of marketing, she stressed the importance of camouflaging the radical nature of my student-run workshop.  “Nobody is going to send their kids to something advertised as run by kids.  I wouldn’t send my kids to anything that was ‘student run’,” she said emphatically.  “No parent wants their kids in a program the kids run.  We know our kids, especially at seven, can’t run a program, and they’re not really running your workshop, really.  You run it.  They want to know, before they hire you, before they send their kids to you, that the adult is in charge.  Run it however you want when you actually do it, if it works, which you tell me it does, fantastic, but if you think ‘student-run’ is a selling point, think again.”

This very point had been debated heatedly, and most annoyingly, at what I decided was the final board meeting with the people I had at that meeting.  Much easier to contribute criticism and strong opinion than to help imaginatively fine tune a vision you don’t share or understand, a vision, frankly, that hasn’t even been articulated professionally.  

I listened carefully to her point, trying to keep neutral body language and a receptive expression on my face.  I told her I understood she had a very strong opinion on this matter, and assured her I would give it more thought.

I felt very mature after saying this and we moved on to her next points, a few more about the cash cow I was sitting on and the nature of the marketing materials I’d have to produce, ones specifically not accenting my unique approach of putting the children’s playful motivation on the front end of the learning equation, whatever the hell that was supposed to mean.  

I’d find out the following day that there is at least one other worldwide movement dedicated to the same principles my program is, the same principles also expressed by Sugata Mitra.  It’s called the Reggio Emilia approach [1], and proceeds precisely as my workshop does.  It’s a child-centered educational movement that lets the interests and excitement of the students, carefully listened to by adult facilitators, drive the learning of that group of children.

“Yes,” I can hear my friend say, “but they are a 70 year-old movement, while you…. do you think you are easy to work with?”

As I’d shown earlier, when I’d tried to point out that, being a one person organization, much of my effectiveness depends on my ability to transcend my moods, alone, at each discouraging turn.  My idea, which has succeeded wildly in practice, is in danger of extinction unless I can recruit and retain at least one other creative person who shares my vision, I tell her.   

“We can either discuss your moods or discuss business.  If you want to discuss your moods, I’ll put this away,” she said, giving the legal pad a quick wave.  

“Business,” I said with a smile.   She smiled too.



At the heart of this system is the powerful image of the child. Reggio educators do not see children as empty vessels that require filling with facts. Rather they see children as full of potential, competent and capable of building their own theories.

Children have the right to be … active participants in the organization of their identities, abilities, and autonomy.. .  “better citizens of the world”… (this system) also credits children, and each individual child, with an extraordinary wealth of inborn abilities and potential, strength and creativity.  Irreversible suffering and impoverishment of the child is caused when this fact is not acknowledged [my emphasis– ed].

Each day and every moment, we, the teachers, follow the directions of the children and adapt ourselves, always observing, documenting, listening and interpreting their goals, theories and strategies so we can gain insight into their thinking, always ready to make changes and support the children in their discoveries.

“Tell me and I’ll forget, show me and I may remember, involve me and I’ll understand.” Chinese Proverb




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