August 7, 2023

“I can’t do that because…” and the magic question

Stuck-State? Stuck? No solution in sight? Do you know neither forward nor backward?

We humans sometimes tend to get in our own way and believe that certain things won’t work because… “It won’t work because …” or “I can’t do it, because …” are sentences that then tend to pop up quickly in our heads or out loud. But what if there was a way after all? In this article, we take a closer look at this phenomenon.

A simple question can get you out of a dead end!

The story of the potter who felt stuck

Once upon a time there was a talented potter in a small village. He was known for his beautiful pottery, but always had difficulty producing enough pieces for the village’s demand. The potter believed that he was unable to increase his production because his old, hand-operated potter’s wheel was too slow. Because of the low income he was making from his current sales, he also didn’t feel he had enough money saved up to afford a new and faster disc. How was he supposed to get out of it?

One day, an old wise man visited the village. The potter sought his advice, explaining that he was frustrated with the speed of his potter’s wheel and the financial situation.

The wise man smiled and asked, “What needs to happen for you to increase your production and make enough money to buy a new disc?” The potter replied that he needed a faster potter’s wheel.

The old man led the potter to a nearby stream and showed him how the water flows inexorably over the stones, smoothing and shaping them. He said, “Do you see how the water shapes the stones, not by speed but by constant, patient work? Just as the water shapes the stones, you could also shape your pottery. Not through speed, but through consistency and perseverance.”

These words of the wise man made the potter think. He realized that he didn’t necessarily need a faster potter’s wheel, but that he could better plan and use his time and energy. He realized that he had become so set in his idea that the only way to do it was to get a new potter’s wheel, that he had become frustrated and had stopped working efficiently and with focus. He realized that he could hire another person so that the potter’s wheel would be used longer if they took turns using it. These insights helped him increase his production without compromising his quality. Increased production allowed him to earn enough money to afford a new, additional potter’s wheel.

History teaches us that we often define the limits of our abilities by our own beliefs, and that asking “What must happen to make it possible?” can help us expand those limits and discover new possibilities.

Beliefs and their power

The thoughts and beliefs we hold in our minds have tremendous power over our behavior and decisions. “I can’t do this because…” is an example of such a belief set that often prevents us from taking on new challenges or achieving our goals. These beliefs are often deeply rooted and can unconsciously influence our thoughts and actions.

The Magic Question

Asking “What must be given for it to be possible / happen the way I want it to happen?” can be a powerful tool to break down these limiting beliefs. It asks us to focus on the opportunities and solutions rather than the problems or obstacles. This can lead to finding creative solutions and exploring new avenues that we may not have considered before.

It is important to understand that our mind works selectively. That means we get more of what we focus on. If we are focused on problems, we will only find more problems. If we are convinced that something cannot be done, our mind will filter out all the necessary evidence that confirms this assumption and foolishly weed out anything that would prove us wrong. Only the right question can help to direct the selective perception towards the possibilities.

Sometimes it can make sense to write down the question and look for at least 5-10 ways to answer it, no matter how weird they may seem at first. The more, the better. I’ve also heard of variants where you take the time over several days to write down up to 50 possibilities, no matter how outlandish they are. Simply with a small book where you have numbered from 1 – 50 and then whenever you think of something you write it behind a blank number. Even if only devious ideas seem to come quickly – after the devious ideas often come the really good ideas after a while, if only our subconscious mind had enough time to work for us in the background.

Advantages of this approach

This approach promotes solution-oriented thinking and can help strengthen a sense of self-efficacy. By focusing on what is possible, we can use our resources more effectively and are more likely to achieve our goals.

In addition, we direct our selective perception.
If we see only the obstacles before and why everything does not work, we challenge our mind with this question to expand its selective perception and to see new possibilities in the first place.

Potential pitfalls of the question “What would have to be given in order for …”

However, there is also a risk that this question can lead to unrealistic expectations or undue pressure if it is not asked carefully. It’s important to remain realistic about this and accept that not everything is fully possible right away, and that sometimes it’s okay to rethink or adjust a goal.

This is especially true if the necessary step to be taken is chosen too large.
It is also easier to jump over a 2 meter ditch than over a 50 meter one.
And having a Mount Everest as a goal / “having” to climb it, when you are currently still out of breath after 50 stairs, can also rather demotivate.

Thus, it may be useful to repeat the question on the answer found until you get to a dimension that is realistic and feasible in a reasonable amount of time.

Alternatively, you can ask the question, “What would be the one immediate next step I can take to get closer to this goal?”

When and how to use the question “What would have to be given in order to …”.

This question is especially helpful when we are facing a challenge or feel stuck. It can inspire us to step out of our comfort zone and discover new possibilities. However, it is also important to take time to reflect and be aware of the potential consequences of our decisions.

My own experience with this topic

For a while in my life, I was the main technical manager for major events, some of which cost half a million EUR and were broadcast live on television.

One day it happened that I had a scheduling collision. A seminar I really wanted to go to was happening at the same time. The next one would not have been for another year, but the issue was very acute and could not wait a year.

I was talking to my coach at the time and whining my head off.
That’s when the first question came, “What would have to be given for this to work?”
“My employee would have to take over, but he can’ t because he’s never been in charge and responsible for the overall engineering for an event – even the small ones that aren’t live on TV.”
Admittedly, I was scared as hell of embarrassment and that it would ruin my reputation – what if something went wrong? … and so I continued to whine to my coach.
At some point he had enough and just said “Dominik, you are robbing your employee of the chance for personal growth. You don’t even know if he would trust himself to do it. What would have to be given for this to work? Why don’t you ask him? Ask him if he would feel confident doing it, and what would have to be given for him to feel safe and do it.”

And so I did.
I spoke with my coworker the next day.
And he was ready to take on the responsibility, dared to do it.
He had experienced how I had gone through hell at my first big event because everything seemed to go wrong until shortly before the event started. And he knew that at every event there would always be new challenges that no one expected, but he still dared to do it. He told me what he needed to make him feel safe and in the end that’s exactly how it went. I accompanied the construction and then I went to the seminar.
And the event? My employee at the time handled this brilliantly, including the expected unknown challenges that always exist at events of this size.
Admittedly, I was sweating blood on the first day of the event because I was 600km away and could not have intervened. After that, however, I relaxed noticeably.

Since then, it has been much easier for me to give him and my other employees more and greater responsibility, as long as they were confident to do it themselves or the things that needed to be given had been clarified.


The ability to challenge our beliefs and focus on the possibilities is a powerful tool to bring positive change in our lives. By integrating the magical question “What must be given for it to be possible / happen the way I want it to happen?” into our thinking, we can develop a greater sense of self-efficacy and be more likely to achieve our goals. However, it is important to remain realistic and recognize the limitations of this approach.

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