SVP Conference 2014: ‘What can’t you not do?’


Larry Fox


What do parables, Zen koans, and Yogi Berra have in common with Paul Shoemaker, founding president of Social Venture Partners International? Answer: they all delight in the power of awkward language, the kind of grammatical origami that stops the mind in its tracks and sends it on its refractory way.

On a beautiful morning in Austin, Texas, USA, Paul exhorted the 300 attendees at the Social Venture Partners Conference on ‘Audacious Philanthropy’ to ask themselves his version of a mind contortion: What can’t you not do?


Do those double negatives simply resolve themselves into ‘what can you do’? Was Paul just using bad English to ask us to identify our potential? Well, kind of … but more, much more. He was asking us to find that thing in our life so utterly powerful, irresistible and unavoidable that we had no choice but to pursue it. He was asking us to look beyond the potential of ‘I can’; indeed beyond the moral force of ‘I should’; and even further on past the imperative ‘must do’. All those words – can, should, must – leave things in our hands. We can deny them, and often do. But what pursuit could we not deny under any conditions, ever?

For Paul, his first encounter with such a thing was in the eyes of his future wife on a college dance floor. He knew then and there that he was a goner. Game over! It was out of his hands. The script for his life was written in that moment. His destiny.

So what might be our script?

As a room full of philanthropically minded people, we were challenged to find that love, not of someone – this wasn’t a conference – but of some ‘thing’, a purpose, a reason for being. What cause, what pursuit will stir in us an irresistible drive? The kind that catalytically transforms into fulfilling life commitment? What is our purpose that becomes our destiny?

It is amazing where bad grammar can take you!

That’s what Paul was asking us; but why?

Paul’s answer: the potential to do good in the world has never been greater – rapid connectivity, globalized sharing, stunning technology. The world is forever pregnant with innovative potential. But in a world faced with massive complex problems, what moves that potential? What drives possibility to actuality? Nothing … unless human beings burn with desire and energy to make it happen. And what fuels that fire? ‘Can’t not do.’ That irresistible and un-nameable passion that gets us out of our beds in the morning and urges us to take on the improbable, day after day.

Wow. I’m in! But wait.

Every example Paul gave of someone experiencing this encounter with destiny was a case of serendipity. It just happened to them. They didn’t go around with the ancient philosopher’s lantern looking for their ‘can’t not do’. They tripped on it accidentally. Paul on the dance floor. Others in equally unsought ways. So why is he asking me to look for it? Is this something I can find, or does it just find me?

We are on metaphysical ice with this question, so there is only one thing to do – consult the wisdom of the legendary UCLA basketball coach, John Wooden. He told his new players: work hard every day and get ready so that whenever your opportunity comes you will have your best chance at success. Put slightly more poetically: ready yourself for your moment.

There are no promises that life will bless you with ‘can’t not do’ purpose; but if you follow your heart with utter abandon, you increase your chances. Paul was not expecting to find his ‘game over’ moment on the dance floor with his future wife; but that night he did travel 120 miles just to be with her. Other examples similarly told of people who were actively creating and pursuing their interests when their irresistible purpose infiltrated their life.

The sign at my local hardware store says: ‘The harder I work, the luckier I get.’ Perhaps we don’t attract our purpose by expecting it. We attract it by being worthy of it.


‘Find your “can’t not do”’ is good advice. It encourages us to find the fuel that drives the effort that changes the world. How will you know you have found it? If you are still asking that question, you haven’t. When you find your irresistible and undeniable life purpose in service of humanity, your day will fit you like a glove; and you will feel the boundless reservoir of energy that is compassion, caring and love.

‘Find your “can’t not do”’ is advice that can’t not work. Try it.

Larry Fox is a Partner with Social Venture Partners in Portland.

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