I Think I Can, I Think I Can

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | Oct 26, 2013

“It’s good to remember that success may be just beyond the next failure, and you’ll get there, not because you’re destined to, but because you’re determined to.”
Steve Goodier

One of the greatest children’s stories with an easy-to-grasp moral was published with illustrations in 1930 titled, "The Little Engine that Could." The story’s signature phrases such as “I think I can” first appeared in a 1902 article in a Swedish journal.

An earlier published version of the story, “Story of the Engine that Thought It Could,” appeared in the New York Tribune, April 8, 1906, as part of a sermon by Rev. Charles S. Wing. Over the years other versions of the story appeared in publications for children.

The story has been told and retold many times. A little railroad engine was employed about a station yard for such work as it was built for, pulling a few cars on and off the switches. One morning it was waiting for the next call when a long train of freight cars asked a large engine in the roundhouse to take it over the hill. 

“I can’t; that is too much a pull for me,” said the engine built for hard work. Then the train asked another engine, and another, only to hear excuses and be refused. In desperation, the train asked the little switch engine to draw it up the grade and down on the other side.

“I think I can,” puffed the little locomotive, and put itself in front of the great heavy train. As it went on the little engine kept bravely puffing faster and faster. “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.”

As it neared the top of the grade, which had so discouraged the larger engines, it went more slowly. However, it still kept saying, “I—think—I—can, I—think—I—can.” It reached the top by bravery on bravery and then went on down the grade, congratulating itself by saying, “I thought I could, I thought I could.”

The story obviously teaches children the value of optimism and hard work. And I love that little story and the lessons it teaches. As Richelle E. Goodrich said, “It is like breathing — once you quit, your flame dies letting total darkness extinguish every last gasp of hope. You can’t do that. You must continue breathing. Don’t ever, ever, ever, ever give up.” 

But we all know that optimism and hard work cannot solve every challenge. Price Pritchett tells the story on an early afternoon day in late July when he hears “ … the desperate sounds of a life-or-death struggle going on a few feet away. There’s a small fly burning out the last of its short life’s energies in a futile attempt to fly through the glass of a windowpane. The whining wings tell the poignant story of the fly’s strategy – try harder.”

Pritchett wisely observes, “But it’s not working. The frenzied effort offers no hope for survival. It is impossible for the fly to try hard enough to succeed in breaking through the glass. Nevertheless, the little insect has staked its life on reaching its goal through real effort and determinism. This fly is doomed. It will die there on the windowsill.”

Every time I read Pritchett’s story, his next words are almost haunting. “Across the room, ten steps away, the door is open. Ten seconds of flying time and this small creature will reach the outside world it seeks. With only a fraction of the effort now being wasted it would be free of this self-imposed trap. The breakthrough possibility is there. It would be so easy.”

We all know the value of optimism and hard work. None of us can climb the mountain without them. But we all also know the value of wisdom and perspective. None of us can get outside without them.

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of 
Valley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville, PA 
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