Can’t

I wanted to talk about one of my least favorite words today – can’t. It’s such a small, seemingly harmless word. We use it all the time. And yet, it can be an incredibly debilitating word. It’s one of those words – like fail and hate – that we adults, sadly, teach our kids. It can be a dream killer. It’s also one of those words that directly gets in the way of change.

Can’t and I go way back. I’ve heard this word a lot in my life, though thankfully almost never from my parents. “You can’t get into Stanford.” “You can’t get a graduate Biology degree without doing ‘wet’ biology.” “You can’t get an internship at Microsoft your first year here [in a graduate design program].” (In fairness, the latter was an example of can’t’s close relative, you won’t be able to. And so on. These were all statements from folks like high school principals, department chairs, and deans.

Fortunately, can’t is a word that has the power to motivate me beyond almost any other. I’ve never accepted the power of its hold. It’s something I’d like to help our young adults learn. Like many people though, I need to do a better job myself using it.

There are really two ways to look at can’t. One is with the meaning you are not able to. It’s the dangerous one I point to above. The other is I don’t want you to. For example, “You can’t go out until your homework is done.”

I have to admit that I use the latter form fairly often. The problem with this is that it gets the word can’t into frequent use. Even in this context, I think I tend to overuse it. If I truly want to treat my young adults as adults, I should let them have the choice about when they do their homework, right? We try to do this as much as possible with Aidan and Nev. It mostly works. Mostly.

It’s the first version of can’t though that really irks me. If you watch most younger kids, they seem to have an immunity to can’t. They’ll keep trying something until they figure it out. Sure, there’s frustration at times. But I don’t think that the frustration stems from an innate belief that the kids truly would not be able to do what they are trying. They just want it to happen quickly, but that’s another story.

If someone else, especially an adult, tells them that they can’t do it, that’s where can’t can become disempowering. In a way, it gives someone permission to stop trying and give up. And then they start using can’t themselves and come to believe that they really can’t do something. What an insidious cycle.

I started thinking about can’t recently because I’ve been hearing it a lot at work. Too much. We are going through a transition involving a lot of necessary change. As I mentioned in my last post, most people really dislike change. That’s when I started realizing the broader impact of can’t.

When people start saying that they can’t do something, they (perhaps unintentionally) give others permission to not try. And when you are collectively going through a process of difficult change, can’t makes it easy to not try. It helps people resist change. And that can be infectious.

Conversely, I didn’t hear can’t very much in the startups I worked in, at least not in terms of our ability to do something. In fact, if it wasn’t possible to do something, we’d often just find a different way. Startups are the children of the corporate world. Anything is possible. Somewhere along the line, established companies, like many adults, seem to lose that.

Change needs a fertile environment of the possible, much like startups. Can’t gets in the way. You don’t hear dreamers and visionaries using the word very much.

The destructive power of can’t on the process of change is a newly-found realization for me. Maybe change can be helped along a bit with the elimination of a single word. I’ll give it a try. It’s a nicely “off path” strategy. Pura vida.

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