The Most Useless Word in the English Language (And Why You Should Get It Out Of Your Life)

“It can’t be done”

“You can’t do that”

How many times have you heard these words?   Plenty of times, I bet.   “Can’t” is a big, fat, stop sign designed to sabotage a dream.

A better question might be, why are we hearing them?   BECAUSE we choose to dream, and somebody believes whatever we are wanting to do or achieve is a futile exercise, or there is a barrier in front of us that they think we are incapable of scaling (or knocking down).

That’s their opinion.  Should we consider it?

Yes.

For about a millisecond.

That’s the time it takes to feed it into your motivation machine, and move right along.

Only YOU can decide what’s doable for you. YOU know your capabilities better than anyone.

Then, do something else – something that will serve you very well as you press on.

Get “can’t” out of your vocabulary, and your life.  It’s useless.

I was lucky to have a person who literally drummed “can’t” out of me.  It was 23 years ago, and I was just starting my leadership career.   My boss then was a self-made entrepreneur worth many millions, who never even finished high school.

He didn’t need a “book” education, because he had what he needed to achieve big things:

  • A relentlessly curious intellect and love of the English language
  • A boatload of common sense and keen business intuition
  • Balls (and no, I’m not talking about the sports kind)

I remember the first time we discussed the business plan for the company he hired me to manage – in my youthful naivety I casually pointed out that “we can’t” hit these numbers.  Uh oh, wrong choice of words.

“Young man”, he said, “I will not tolerate any nattering nabobs of negativity in this enterprise – do you understand?”

Nattering nabobs?   Whoa.  After running to the dictionary (he stole that from William Safire, who wrote it for Spiro Agnew), the message sunk in.  Yes, the plan was a challenge, no question.  But to summarily dismiss it with that word – well, that was a word too far.

As it turned out, my boss relished those “millisecond” motivation boosts – in fact, he had a poster in one of his offices that later cemented my banishment of “can’t” from my own vocabulary.  Here’s what it said:

“It can’t be done”

“It can’t be done”

“It can’t be done”

“It can’t be done”

“It can’t be done”

“It’s done”

That did it for me – I realized that while not all dreams and plans were ultimately achievable, setting a tone of negativity from the get go with that ugly little word just stops them in their tracks.

And there is SO much to gain from even noble failures – little lessons that get applied in the future, or another door that pops open along the way.

These days I’m the one trying to banish the nattering nabobs from my circle (probably using a little different language to do it), and it’s an extremely effective strategy for living a life full of dreams, hope, and possibilities – and action.

So what do you think – shall we rid the world of “can’t” altogether?   Imagine that.  That won’t be easy, but in the immortal words of my good friend Don Quixote:

“And the world will be better for this,
That one man, scorned and covered with scars,
Still strove, with his last ounce of courage,
To reach the unreachable stars!”

Who’s with me?

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Comments

  1. says

    Just had a plumber tell me just the same thing. He can’t, they can’t and then gave me a bill for something he couldn’t do. Hey ho! The Romans were better at his job!

  2. says

    I’m in!

    People often poo-poo the “power of positive thinking” philosophy, but I’m completely onboard. While it doesn’t guarantee success, the “C” word does – quite definitively – guarantee failure.

    I’ve never been a prudish about the use of 4-letter words, but this is one that shall forever more be stricken from my vocabulary.

    Great post, Terry!

  3. says

    Terry, please delete my previous comment. While trying to copy and paste your quote into my comment, I accidentally pasted something else. Here’s what I meant to say:

    This is a great bit of inspiration. And you gave the best reason for deleting “can’t” from our vocabulary. Although everything can’t (there’s that word again) be achieved:

    “There is SO much to gain from even noble failures – little lessons that get applied in the future, or another door that pops open along the way.”

    Perhaps we say “can’t”, not because we feel we legitimately can’t do it, but we’re scared that we won’t actually achieve our goals, and we’ll fail. And we’ve been taught that failure is always bad. That’s the real problem — our perception of failure.

  4. says

    Terry,

    I love it! Thank you for sharing your story about your boss – I love his attitude and am sure that so much of what you later accomplished was because he helped you “fix” that “can’t” mentality early on in your career!

    In addition to reason why some people try to discourage us – because, in some cases, they may be threatened by your strong convictions. I am so glad that you wrote this post and recognized the value in even the minutest noble failures.

    You are such an inspiration to me, Terry!

  5. says

    Wonderful. Just remember the little engine that could and did. I think this is why we all the love the quote from Spencer W. Kimball, that Nike uses. “Just Do it”

  6. says

    “I realized that while not all dreams and plans were ultimately achievable, setting a tone of negativity from the get go with that ugly little word just stops them in their tracks.”

    In August 1978 I heard a dad say to his son, “Can’t died in the army. Just do it.” Thanks for the reminder. I’m definitely with you!

  7. says

    What an awesome post and how lucky for you to have someone eradicate that word for you 23 years ago! I try to drum this into my kids’ heads all the time.

    One possible exception for use of the word is whoever’s quote that is a family favorite – “Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right”

    I agree 100% with Jake. Perception of failure makes all the difference. I’ve been a part of some things that have “failed” in a spectacular fashion by most standards. But I don’t view them that way. My take away from the experience completely trumps the fact that there was not success. These “failures” help ensure larger successes down the road so how can that be considered a failure?

    Again, great post – Thanks!

  8. says

    Hi Terry. Thanks for the morning motivation. Sounds like some @hankwasiak Asset Based Thinking. The first thing we can change about our world is our minds.

  9. says

    In some cases – rather than use the word ‘can’t’.

    Have the balls (to borrow from the post) to say I ‘Won’t’

    Maybe ethics, maybe legal.

    It does not matter – if ‘can’t’ is being used as a synonym for ‘won’t’ – just say it.

  10. says

    Stopped by as Lisa Petrilli tweeted about your post. I will be brief. My mother told me a long time ago…”Can’t never did anything!” (She was born in 1918)

  11. says

    I found this post from a tweet by Brian Clark and I’m glad he did.

    I’m grateful for treatment of the subject. As a real estate broker I encounter nay sayers and “nabobs” too often in my profession.

    I’m motivated to not only eliminate “can’t” from my vocabulary, but will also ban it from any form of communication I author.

    Spoken and Written words like Can’t can have a stifle a world of possibilities.

  12. says

    Would I be punished if I said I couldn’t … agree more, that is. Cracking story about your old boss. I had a very similar boss, about the same amount of time ago too (boy, bosses were so much better back then!)… He was both ruthless and generous, I look back on him with great affection still.
    He had a little notice by his desk that said “I can’t wait to hear your solution” – I’ve never forgot that.

  13. says

    I’m on a path right now where my “self-speak” is battling. I *know* I can, yet a small part of me is saying “I can’t”

    It’s like the angel and demon you would see in cartoons sitting on someone’s shoulders. Time to exorcise the demon.

    Thank you!

  14. says

    Love this post! It goes right up there with my favorite quote from Helen Keller: “While they talked among themselves saying it can’t be done, it was done.”

  15. says

    It’s not the goal, it’s the way to it. So if can is the goal, the way to it is more important than actually achieving it. If you think you can’t, you don’t even hit the road trying. Therefore not experiencing the way to it. Therefore not experiencing the pitfalls, the traps, nor the glorious feelings, the empowerment and the relief just before the goal. We have to start thinking about the trying as fulfilling, as achievement, because the things we learn is worth so much more than our simple goals we put ourselves towards.

  16. says

    Loved your post. Great advice and very timely
    Hanging on my desk wall is a hand calligraphy my daughter did for me from my favorite musical “Man of La Mancha” and the words from the song “Impossible Dream”.
    When I’m having a not the best day I put on the CD and play loudly Track 16 the Finale. As Dulcinea sings to the dying Don Quixote she reminds him of the Quest, slowly he remembers and rises to sing one final time.
    There is a great line where he shouts out:
    ” Not well? What is illness to the body of a knight-errant? What matter wounds? For each time he falls, he shall rise again, and woe to the wicked. Sancho my armor !”
    At SobCon next year I’m thinking we should get together and make this part of karaoke ?

  17. says

    Wow! I know it’s been said so much to be almost cliche, but I so needed to read this words. Today. This moment. Right now.

    I remember as a kid when my English teachers would scold me for using the word can’t. “There’s no such word!” Tthey would declare with authority. :-) Smart women.

    All the best,

    Tren

  18. says

    Since leaving SOBCon – I have encountered one post, one thought, one message at a time that fit into the ‘right line of thinking at the right time’ for me.

    This post falls into that same category. My SOBCon ‘a-ha’ moment is percolating….will post soon.

    Thank you for making me better.

  19. says

    Terry,

    I love this post. It strikes at what we have taught my daughter. Never say “I can’t.” You only need to say that you need more time or, perhaps, help.

    She’s only three, but better for it. Sometimes so much better for it that I’m tempted to say “you can’t” to some of her more brazen ideas. Of course, I bite my tongue and settle with “ah, not right now.”

    Best,
    Rich

  20. says

    Wow. Just wow. I’m overwhelmed by the response to this post. I thank ALL of you who took the time to write your thoughts down – they have made the thoughts that I put down today all that more meaningful, and relevant. If I could help just one iota with your quest for personal greatness, that would be wonderful.

    Thanks again to all of you, and I’m happy that you’re “with me” on the eradication of that useless word!

    Regards,
    Terry

  21. says

    Nice post Starbucker. The word “can’t” can be a dangerous word when achieving our dreams. Sometimes though, you need to actually say it out loud before you realize the actual effect it has before you can erase it from your mind. But yeah, I think the word can’t just attracts more negative thoughts which blocks us from what we are trying to achieve in life. Thanks for the reminder!

  22. says

    I’m with you! Just think how big the circle will be when all of us are successful with removing the negativity that surrounds us!

  23. says

    I really don’t like this word at all… although I’m guilty of using it sometimes out of sheer laziness. I prefer phrases like, “I really don’t have time to that now.”, “That isn’t something I can commit to.”, etc. It forces you to take responsibility for your choices instead of leaving them up to some random force that’s acting upon you. The best road to success is to become the only force driving your own life!

  24. Ubu Walker says

    “Only YOU can decide what’s doable for you. YOU know your capabilities better than anyone.”

    I wish that this were true, but time and time again, people (myself included) believe that they are capable of doing things which they are not capable of doing.

    For example, if you have ever watched American Idol, there are hundreds, if not thousands of contestants who really believe they can sing well, who in reality, really sound like harpies. It takes an experienced professional to convince them that they should focus on something else that they are talented at before some of these deluded contestants realize that they don’t have the chops for the industry.

    It’s important to have good self-esteem, to try to push and challenge one’s self to do new and difficult tasks, and to learn new things. You can always try harder. But when self-perception races ahead of reality, the likely result is a socially inept misfit. Saying “I can” or “I can’t” has to based in reality. Knowing that imperfections exist is the first step to improving yourself.

    Check out some interesting research here: http://www.psych.utoronto.ca/~peterson/psy430s2001/Colvin%20CR%20Do%20positive%20illusions%20foster%20mental%20health%20Psych%20Bull%201994.pdf

  25. says

    This post is all we need to tell people. We need to replace the “can’t” with “can”. Also, we need to stop losing time with people that tell us “you can’t”, nobody that tell us that, can be wanting the best for us.

  26. says

    I agree wholeheartedly. Ban the word. My grandfather had a saying that had a strong impression on me. Anytime I would say “can’t”, he would say “Can’t never tried”. I’m glad I learned that early on in life. Thanks gramps.

  27. Danny Marx says

    My nemesis is the phrase:

    ‘I know it doesn’t make sense, it’s just what we do’ or ‘it’s probably not the best way, but …’

    If you know it can be done better… do it!

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