Sunday, April 15, 2018

Overcoming 'I Can't'

Maple flowers, just before the leaves come on.

I've been a teacher for my entire adult life. Much of that has been in places where I'm teaching skills, and those skills aren't easy.  Most people are willing to practice and learn until they can do what it is I'm teaching. Others get stuck in 'I can't'.  What I've noticed over the years is that usually 'I can't' means something else entirely. 

Here are the top three things people really mean when they say 'I can't'. 

1.  'I don't know how' - The problem with saying 'I can't' is that it offers no solution to overcoming the problem.  On the other hand, saying, 'I don't know how [yet],' presents a solution:  Learn how.   Once you have that as a goal, then you are open to finding the right teacher, book, experience, etc. that will help you learn how. 

2.  'It's harder than I expected.' - I often hear this when people are excited to start something new, then they realize that they aren't good at it right away and that mastery is going to take sustained practice and work. That's not very much fun.  However, if you can say, 'It's harder than I expected,' instead of 'I can't', then you have given yourself permission to change your expectations of the process and let yourself off the hook for not being perfect at something right away. 

3. 'I don't want to' - By far, this is the most common thing that people mean when they say 'I can't'.  'I can't' means you don't have the power or ability to do something and it's not your fault. On the other hand, saying, 'I don't want to,' means you accept full responsibility and for whatever reason, you choose not to do the thing.  The problem is that we don't want to disappoint people [I don't want to come to your event'], we don't want to appear less than skilled or perfect [I don't want to make the effort'], we don't like change [I don't want to upset the status quo'], etc.   It's much more polite and far easier to say 'I can't' and blame the universe which cruelly left us without the power or ability to do this thing than it is to say, 'Hey, I weighed my options and this one didn't make the cut.  I don't want to. So sorry,' which may be true, but isn't always socially acceptable.

The next time you hear yourself or someone say, 'I can't', stop for a minute and try to figure out what is really meant.   See if a shift in mindset would help loosen some resistance and move you to a place of 'I can', or a place of more fully accepting what you do and don't want to do.


  1. Brilliant post, Robin. Throw in a dose of persistence with your "I can't" evaluation and there would be a lot more accomplished people in the world :-)

  2. Early in my clay career, I remember saying "I can't" to myself a lot. It was about not having the patience to put the time in to learn the techniques. I wanted to be "good" at it "now", not 10 years from now. It was also about fear that I couldn't learn the techniques. So glad I persevered!! Thanks for this very insightful post!

    1. I'm so glad you persevered, too! We live in a culture that expects instant results. It's hard to tell the world it needs to wait and it's hard to face possible failure. Thanks for posting your experience.


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