Do What They Think You Can’t Do
October 1989

“Do What They Think You Can’t Do,” New Era, Oct. 1989, 4

The Message:

Do What They Think You Can’t Do

Taken from a commencement address given at Ricks College on April 21, 1988.

No obstacle can keep you from the goal of learning.

I recently read a story about a young man named Duke Fergerson. He is a retired professional football player who is now attending Harvard Business School. He grew up in the housing projects in Merced, California. His father died when he was a boy, and his mother passed away not long ago. But when he was a young man, Duke’s mother gave him advice that sunk deep into his heart: “Do what they think you can’t do.”

In an interview, Fergerson explained how he got through high school using his wits and the help of a girlfriend. He graduated without learning how to read; since he was one of the top three high school hurdlers in California, he didn’t think he needed to. Somehow, he got into a local junior college.

But then something began to happen. He realized that he had cheated himself. So besides working hard on athletics, he began to educate himself for life. He hired tutors and took classes to make up what he had missed in high school.

He got through junior college and became a star on a college team. He got into professional football and played for the Dallas Cowboys and the Seattle Seahawks. The entire time, he continued studying, even after he had a professional football contract.

“A lot of players laughed at me when they heard I was going to school and being tutored,” he says. “The hardest part was sitting down with tutors who were younger than I was, and who looked up to professional athletes. That’s because midway through tutoring, your status changes. You become smaller. But I needed it. I had to do it” (Harvard Business School Bulletin, Apr. 1988, p. 15).

Duke was traded to the Los Angeles Rams, then released during training camp in 1983. He applied to several graduate schools, and one of the admissions officers suggested he apply at Harvard. He thought it was a joke, but he gave them a call. They accepted him. And I can tell you this—Harvard University will not be the end of Duke Fergerson’s education.

Let me tell you two of the attitudes Duke Fergerson has that I believe are two of the three keys to lifelong learning.

FIRST: You are a child of God. Now Duke Fergerson doesn’t mention God. But his mother said, “Do what they think you can’t do.” He believed that. You have a deeper reason for believing in what you can do, because you know who you really are. As a child of God, your destiny, if you work hard enough and are faithful, is to become like Him. That means that there is nothing that is true that you cannot learn, because He knows all truth.

Most people stop learning out of fear. They are afraid they cannot learn. You need never have that fear if you are faithful. Your formal schooling may be interrupted for some reason, but I want you to know with absolute certainty that you can learn whatever God would have you learn. Great learners believe that. They have the attitude that they can learn.

SECOND: Duke Fergerson talked about how hard it was to be a professional football player and yet hire a tutor. The tutors were younger than he was. He was wealthier and older. But he said that in the tutoring process something happened. He had to become smaller.

That is the second attitude of all lifelong learners: Because God is so great and I am so small, it is easy to admit what I do not know. Therefore, I am teachable.

My father was an internationally famous research chemist. When he would give talks to audiences of nonscientists, he would often give his explanation of an answer to a scientific question and then he would say, “You know, sometimes I think that God watches me and laughs at me as I struggle like a little child. Someday I will be with Him and He will show me how childlike my ideas were.”

That always got a chuckle from the audience. And it endeared Dad to people because they thought it was a sign of humility.

But it was far more than a sign of humility. It was an explanation of why he was a lifelong learner. He really saw himself as a little child. Because of that, it was easy for him to admit that there were better explanations than the ones he had already offered. He was constantly changing, constantly trying to learn.

THIRD: Duke Fergerson does not mention the third attitude, but it’s an attitude that Latter-day Saints know is vital to all true learning. This is it: Because I am clean, the Holy Ghost can teach me.

I imagine many of you have had some experience where you were taught by the Holy Ghost. You have had times in your life when you were keeping the commandments of God and the Holy Ghost could be close to you and teach you easily. If you persisted, you felt the power of the Holy Ghost adding to your capacity to learn. You felt the Holy Ghost nudging you in the direction of truth, confirming truth when you found it, even bringing ideas directly to your mind. That may not have happened often to you and it may not have lasted long. But if it has happened to you once, you know it is possible.

I gain some understanding of how powerful learning through the Holy Ghost can be by reviewing the experience of the Prophet Joseph Smith. He never stopped learning and had a range of education come into his life that can only be explained by the power of the Holy Ghost. The same would be true of Brigham Young, who had less than a month of formal education.

Remember these three beliefs: First, there is no limit to your potential learning as a child of God. Second, childlike humility is the key to teachableness. And third, living a clean life will allow the Holy Ghost to confirm and expand your learning.

If these are your beliefs, and if you live by them, then you too will be able to “do what they think you can’t do.”

Illustrated by Rob Colvin