The little red engine has a lot to answer for

This post was written by Megan on May 18, 2010
Posted Under: burnout and society

Little Red Engine cartoon


The famous children's story of The Little Red Engine (first published in 1945 by Diana Ross – no, not the singer) saw the protagonist spending an awful lot of time working its way up a hill using the semi-positive affirmation “I think I can”. 


Here's how the story starts:

Once upon a time there was a little Red Engine and every day at seven o’clock it came out of its shed at Taddlecombe Junction to go on its journey.

Every morning as it passed, it whistled to its friends: little dog Hurry at Jubilee Cottages, Neddy the donkey at Callington Manor, the frogs, the sheep and the one-eyed gamekeeper’s cat.

It loved its job, travelling to new places, meeting lots of people and seeing exciting things. Then one day, the Little Red Engine didn’t arrive. It had never been late before, whatever could have happened? 


The Little Red Engine stopped pretending everything was a-okay and tickety-boo, is what happened.

The Little Red Engine is an archetypal burnout personality, if this beginning is anything to go by. Always prompt, always conscientious, always mindful of friends, family and colleagues. Always working up a bloody hill while puffing "I think I can".

Then one morning you discover you can't even get out of bed – for days. It's the ol' crash and burn story. We know it well.


'I can' vs. 'I think I can'

And, of course, burnees often spend time carrying a good dose of self-doubt. Or at least that's what the articles on burnout often tell us.

But saying "I think I can" rather than “I can” displays the kind of humility I admire. I would much prefer to hang out with an "I think I can" than someone who performs on a stage with a microphone strapped to their head like a sea creature (and a motivational best-seller sitting in self-help section), yelling "Yes, I can!". To me, this person's over-compensation indicates something important. If you need to yell 'Yes, I can' into a microphone then you have greater self-esteem issues than The Little Red Engine. 

President Barrack Obama got away with the "Yes, we can" speech because it was as clear as day that he was sending out the message: "Don't think it's all up to me, buddy".  


Is trying enough? 

Not according to Yoda. Yoda's famous phrase "Do or do not. There is no try" follows me everywhere. This is probably because my partner, Jeff, says it a lot around the house. And, yes, with 'the voice'.  He's actually quite good at it. And it does make me laugh, as long as I don't analyse what he's saying.

Instead, I imagine Yoda on a stage, complete with headset and free e-book, getting everyone in the galaxy to sing along to 'Simply the Best'.


So what am I really saying?

Can, can't. Who cares? Isn't the real question: WHY am I doing this?" Hauling my arse up some hill like the dutiful Little Red Engine. Conquering mountains, even, when the big boys fail. As harsh as it sounds: no, I don't care two hoots.


What do I care about, then?

There is a saying that resonates more than 'I can' or 'I think I can' or 'Yes, we can' or 'There is no try'.  

It is 'Live gently'. 

Living gently doesn't negate living with strength. In fact, the two are like one of those power couples you come across – self-assured, aware, compassionate, intelligent and with a delightful sense of humour.

They understand each others differences and how those differences make them even stronger when together. Brad and Angelina can't even touch these guys.


What saying resonates with you?

Share it with us (comment below).


This post was written by Megan Hills. Megan is a writer and cartoonist who does her darndest to reduce her thinking and doing. Find out more about Megan

Reader Comments

The stories of real triumph in many cases are rarely told because they don't involve mountains climbed or records broken.
I remember reading an letter in 'The Australian' relating to an article where Ian Thorpe, who was still swimming at the time and due to go into the next Olympics, was being compared to Alexander the great. The letter suggested that 'swimming really fast' or 'conquering a continent' paled into insignificance compared to those who struggle with chronic illness. The ones who should really be applauded as heros for getting out of bed in the morning when their bodies had deserted them.
I at the time agreed and still do. perhaps we need to be focusing on the people who can't rather than the people who can? The ones who can don't need the leg up….because they can.
Why is hero worship still so unbalanced?

Written By Anthea on May 23rd, 2010 @ 8:10 pm

I found this page while doing a Google search for mention of my grandmother, Diana Ross.

welp, if you ever knew or spent time with her she generally lived a philosophy of "living gently" except when she didn't. then she would sometimes seize up and crash mentally and sometimes stamp her foot and have a temper tantrum after some conflict with her daughter, my mother, who herself has temper tantrums.
though this may seem contradictory of what I said before, you can't easily sum up people within the space of a couple of paragraphs of prose. anyway, summing up, she really did live in the kind of way that you advocate.
actually I find all mottos reductionist.

Written By Ria on October 18th, 2011 @ 7:42 am

Thanks for your valuable feedback on Diana. It’s nice to know that she advocated living gently. I certainly relate to her experience of trying to live gently…then not…then crashing! I can also lose my temper, being so frustrated with it all. It seems to be a lesson that keeps coming up, generation after generation. We’ll get there one day :)

Written By Megan on November 1st, 2011 @ 7:55 am

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