Don't Let Self-Imposed Barriers Stop You

In all the years that I used to teach a live CPA Exam review course, I was always amazed by how many capable candidates showed up and immediately started telling me why they couldn’t pass the CPA Exam. Had it not been so sad, it would have been funny. In fact, I labeled it as the “I can’t do this because” disease. New candidates would practically leap out of their cars on the first day telling me why they couldn’t pass the CPA Exam.

--I can’t do this because I didn’t learn much in college.

--I can’t do this because I am a bad test taker.

--I can’t do this because my boss won’t give me anytime to study.

--I can’t do this because my family is not supportive.

--I can’t do this because I work so slowly.

--I can’t do this because I have failed in the past.

--I can’t do this because I didn’t make good grades in Accounting at college.

With all these self-imposed barriers, I used to wonder how anyone ever passed the CPA Exam.

My response was always “well, don’t place too many stumbling blocks in your own path. Let’s start adding some points on a daily basis and see where we wind up.” The CPA Exam is tough enough without you telling yourself you are going to fail. I could never figure out how all of those excuses were of any possible help.

I think the “I can’t do this because” disease must be pretty universal. A lot of humans just seem to think that way. Every time we start a new challenge in life, especially if it pushes us outside of our comfort zone, we seem to lose faith in ourselves. We all do this – it is just a little more obvious in studying for the CPA Exam. Setting low expectations makes it is easier if you do fail. We seem to be trying to soften the possible blow by letting everyone know that we don’t really expect to do well.

However, setting low expectations makes it so much more difficult to succeed. That attitude works against you. It is hard to have the confidence to do the hard work necessary for success if you have already explained to everyone (including yourself) the many reasons you are going to fail. Who wants to work hard if you don’t believe you can succeed? People live up to their own high expectations but, just as importantly, they also live down to their own low expectations.

Attitude is vitally important in achieving success. People rarely succeed without a “can do” attitude. No one wants you to walk around and brag about how well you are going to do. But, a certain degree of “I can do this” is necessary if you are going to take on tough challenges and win.

Let me give you an example. My wife has long wanted to take a pottery class. I have always resisted because I was convinced that I could never learn how to take a lump of clay and put it on a wheel and turn it into a pot or bowl or vase that could be glazed and fired. I always assumed that I would produce a wreck. I didn’t want to try because I was afraid that I would be embarrassed by my failure. I was afraid of looking stupid. So, I created all kinds of excuses. I found myself constantly starting sentences with “I can’t do this because.”

Finally, this summer we decided to take a six-week pottery class after I ran out of excuses. I figured that I would produce awful stuff but I’d get it over with.

And, of course, you can guess what happened. The teacher was very patient and showed me exactly how to start, how to get the clay centered, how to mold it, how to shape and trim it. When I did something wrong, she would show me how to learn from my mistake and do better the next time. It was a wonderful learning experience.

I enjoyed every second.

And, almost immediately, “I can’t do this because” was replaced by “with some help, I can make this happen.”

But the key was that I stopped putting roadblocks in my path. I stopped defeating myself. I let the teacher help me make gradual progress. And, eventually, I could make some pottery. After 6 weeks, my wife and I had produced over 30 pieces.

When it comes to the CPAExam, stop doubting yourself and get started. Success in life is all about making progress – getting to work and getting better. You have to be willing to make mistakes and then learn from them.

I recently read a book titled “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed. It’s also a movie. It was a relatively long book and quite interesting. And, there was one line near the start of the book that really caught my attention. I immediately jumped up and ran to find a pen so that I could write down those words.

Ms. Strayed was 26 and had lived a tough life. Her mother died when Ms. Strayed was in college and she had a lot of trouble getting over it. She had married and divorced and experimented with some dangerous drugs.

In hopes of getting her life straightened out, she decided to walk 1,100 miles of the very challenging Pacific Crest Trail by herself with little training or experience. In the book, about the time she gets ready to start this grand adventure, she gets scared and almost backs out. It is there that she has this line that I appreciated so much: “Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves.”

If you tell yourself that you are going to fail, you become afraid and that increases your chances of failure immensely.

If you tell yourself that you are going to keep pushing forward and learning from your mistakes, you can avoid fear and your chances of success go up immediately.

“Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves.”

When you look at the challenge of the CPA Exam, what story are you telling yourself?

--I am just not smart enough; I’m bound to fail.


--If I keep adding points, I’m going to make it to 75.

--I made C’s in college. If I couldn’t do well in school, I’ll never do well on the CPA Exam.


--People just like me pass this exam every day. If they can do it, I can do it.

--I took the CPA Exam once before and failed. I’m always going to fail.


--I’m going to learn from my mistakes and that is going to help me get those additional points that I need.

Before you get too far into the CPA Exam, ask yourself “what stories am I telling myself?” Am I telling myself stories that are going to make me afraid and hold me back? Am I convincing myself that I am weak and flawed? Or, am I telling myself stories that will provide me with the courage and energy and enthusiasm that I need. Am I convincing myself that I am strong and able?

There are no guarantees in life. But that doesn’t mean that you have to view yourself as chained to failure. Tell yourself stories of courage and determination and, maybe, like Cheryl Strayed, you’ll succeed at a very difficult task and become a much stronger person.

It is easy to have the wrong weak stories in your head. But it is just as easy to have strong positive stories in your head.

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