“Can’t.”

Of all the words in the world, perhaps my least favorite is “can’t.”

Why? Maybe it’s because of how often it’s used to rain on somebody else’s parade. For example, people love to tell you that you can’t do things:

“You can’t just…(quit your job, get up and move to another country, say exactly what you’re thinking, change your mind, change your life.)”

People also love to tell you about the things THEY can’t do:

“It’s cool that you’re doing that, but I can’t (travel, eat well, save money, change careers) because (my job is too demanding, my kids have too many evening activities, I have college debt, I have a family to think of.)”

That last kind of “can’t” is the worst, because there’s a tinge of “Must be nice!” to it.

And “must be nice!” might just be the pettiest, most dripping-with-envy, and least productive phrase in the English language.

It implies not only that the other person got whatever it “must be nice!” to have through some kind of illicit, unfair or irresponsible means, but also that the person who wants whatever it “must be nice!” to have is helpless to change their own circumstances.

Can’t we just be honest with ourselves that we all have different desires and values, and make different choices that lead to different outcomes?

Luck, and the ready-made money and connections that are born of good fortune absolutely play a part in it. I’m not so naive as to think everyone who works hard their whole life will eventually become rich or famous, or be able to quit their job at 50 and travel the world drinking fine champagne and partying on yachts.

Nor am I suggesting that it’s a good idea for somebody who’s debt-strapped and has a family to support to quit his job tomorrow, without a plan or any resources, to “follow his dream.”

We all have obligations, responsibilities and obstacles to face. Obviously.

But I also believe that in the first world, almost anyone who wants to: travel more, work less, work a different kind of job, start a business, make more money, eat better, exercise more, learn a new language, live in a different country, move to a new city, have more children, spend more time with their children, etc, has the tools to work toward those goals. And that it’s a waste of time – and often not all that accurate – for somebody to say they “can’t” do or have those things.

Whenever I find myself going down the “must be nice!” path – because no, I am not immune – I reflect on my motives, what the other person has, why I want it, and why I don’t have it. Almost without fail, it’s one of the following:

  1. On second thought, I don’t really want it. For example, I sometimes find myself feeling jealous of musicians who get to sing for a living (and get filthy rich doing it), but when I think about what it really means to be a celebrity, I know that’s not a life I truly want to live. There are other ways for me to scratch that itch.
  2. I haven’t done – and maybe am not willing to do – the work and sacrificing it takes to get what they have.This is a tough one to admit to yourself, but sometimes, it’s true. During a long drive recently, I listened to Gary Vaynerchuk read his book Crush It. I admire Gary a lot – his energy, his made-from-scratch career and his knowledge – and loved the book. But when he started talking about the “hustle” he had to go through to get to where he is, I just felt tired. I realized that while I am definitely a hustler at heart and have found success in my niche, right now I am just not willing or able to put in super long hours and crazy amounts of energy to crank my career up by a few hundred percentage points.  Admitting this to myself was really freeing, because it allowed me to feel more satisfied with what I amdoing and the progress I’ve already made.
  3. Now is not the time. Often when I start feeling envious about something I “can’t” have, I realize that it’s mostly a matter of timing. For example, maybe when my kids are a little older and all of them are in school full time, I’ll have more energy and willingness to “hustle” on Gary V’s level. Maybe the trip to Europe that seems so impossible with all these kids (and our budget) will become much more possible when they are older, we have more freedom from school schedules, and our house is paid off. Maybe one day I’ll actually want to work out more than a few times a week, because I’ll just have more time on my hands. So often “can’t” is temporary, but we allow the word to take up permanent residence in our hearts.
  4. So, you say you “can’t” take your family out of the country, or you “can’t” eat dinner at home, or you “can’t” change careers, eat better, or write for a living.

    But is it really true?
    Or is it possible you don’t really want it, haven’t made or aren’t willing to make the sacrifices needed to do it, or just need to wait a while to see it happen?

    It’s an important distinction that might just change the way you think about everything you ever thought you couldn’t do.

    And really? Admitting that “I can’t” is more often really “I don’t want to” is just being more honest...to everyone else, and to yourself.

Comments

  1. says

    I think I am even less fond of “must be nice” than I am of “can’t.” The latter so clearly stems from the speaker’s perception of limits, but the former is often dismissive and contemptuous.

  2. says

    I love this post. My pet peeve in this vein is, “I would never have time for that.” because, yes, I have a magical time well that others don’t have access to, or I only do what I do because I have absolutely nothing to do with my time. Why can’t people just say, “I have other priorities” or something else that’s honest? Another favorite: “I can’t afford to …” Sure, there are some people in America who can’t afford to not shop at Walmart or buy organic or stay home with their kids or whatever, but for most people this means, “this is not something I choose to spend money on.” which is fine! Just say what you mean.

  3. says

    Hi Megan! Our family is considering relocating to Cuenca as well! We are looking to leave Oregon in June 2013. Originally our plan was to move to Uruguay, but Cuenca, Ecuador keeps popping up on the radar for us. I would love to hear more about your decision to locate in Cuenca and to connect with another family moving there.

    Cheers,
    Melissa

  4. says

    Hi Megan,

    I found you on Pat Flynn’s blog and listened to your interview. It was Awesome. That brought me here and now I read this post.

    I agree…”I Can’t” is a phrase used by many and is usually what prevents people from growing. We have all used this (me included), but have learned that “I Can” or “I Will” is so much more powerful.

    The one I’ve used recently was “I Can’t Write”, because I’ve never felt I was good at it. But, I have so much to share and just by writing this comment…proves that “I Can” :-)

    Thanks for this post and sharing what you do.

    Scott

  5. says

    Ever since the hubby and I decided to start traveling full-time in our RV at a young age (in our 30s), we’ve been hearing this a LOT!!!! “Must be nice..” or “I wish I could do that…” etc. I love your article, and I forwarded it on our FB page because you express exactly what I try to incorporate into my responses to people when they utter these annoying comments. And, yes, like you…I’m guilty of it often times myself (I share your “desire” to be — or not be— a famous singer….and/or a hustler like Gary! LOL!)

  6. Laura says

    I am totally onside with this perspective. I was at a seminar once and the speaker suggested that 99% of the time the word “can’t” can be replaced with the word “won’t”. It’s a very limiting word and speaks volumes if the perspective of the individual. Today it sends a flare up when I hear someone say I can’t, because I hear “won’t”.

  7. says

    Today is my 39th birthday (for the first time) and I really needed to hear this. I was a very successful student, but got married young and had a large family. Still, my heart has always desired something beyond wifehood and motherhood…not instead, rather in addition. But i have used my family as the reason that i “can’t” do something when really i have just been scared or unwilling to do what it takes. I want to do something different by the time i am 40.
    Thanks for this great post! And i love the blog!

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