The Power of Can’t

There’s one word in the English language that can drive me to the brink of madness faster than any other. And when I say “madness”, I mean it both in terms of extreme, rabid anger…and wild bouts of imagination and creativity. That word is “CAN’T”.

Locke_can'tNo one should ever say the word “can’t”. I don’t care how well-meaning you are, “can’t” is a brick wall. It is the most defeatist word I can think of. Sure, you might not be able to see a solution to a given problem sitting in front of you. Things might not be falling into place the way you want them to, but to screech to a full-stop and say that you can’t do something? Nope, I do not accept that. “Can’t” is giving up without a fight.

Now, “I can’t” is bad enough in my book. But if you really want to get under my skin and cause me to start frothing at the mouth, pair “can’t” together with the word “you”.

I have spent far too much of my life having people tell me “you can’t do that”. I don’t know if my history is full of that wretched phrase because I tend to be overambitious or because I gave the appearance of being a timid child without much ability on the outside. Maybe it’s a way for people who are afraid of something bigger in life to control others. Maybe it’s a way for them to ease their own fears or excuse their own lack of imagination. To me, it is a call to war.

As far back as I can remember, any time someone began a sentence directed at me with “you can’t”, my reaction has been immediate and visceral. What are you talking about? How dare you tell me I can’t do something! I can do anything that I put my mind to! Of course, that last bit was something that came much later in my life. I had to let the indignation build up for a while before I was able to put my big girl panties on and do something about it.

The thing is, when you finally reach that point where you are no longer willing to let anyone tell you what you can’t do, your mind starts to come up with all sorts of ways to get crap done. Somewhere between “If you’re going to tell me I can’t do something, then I will prove to you that I CAN” and “Well, if it doesn’t work that way, then I will find another way to make it work” lies a tremendous amount of opportunity.

climb every mountainAs annoying as it is, there is a lot of power in the word “can’t”. It is an invitation to find a better way to do things. It is an invitation to excel. There is a basic implication in “can’t”. It means that whatever the old order was, you’ve outgrown it. It means that it’s time to branch out and tread new ground. If you use it as an excuse to bounce back on yourself or to argue, then you’re only going to drive yourself in circles of frustration (as I discovered a long, long time ago). But if you acknowledge whatever it is that is leading someone (or yourself) to say you can’t, if you name the obstacle and then look for ways around it, then you’re cooking!

I feel like the explosion of self-publishing was based on the power of can’t. At some point in the last ten years, enough people got fed up with the 20th century publishing model. Instead of battering against it and tearing their hair out, they put their work gloves on and looked for a way around it. It took a lot of work and a lot of failures, but the eventual result was a whole new world order of publishing. It’s not for everybody, but it is the answer for so many people, including me.

In fact, I would venture to say that every great innovation in history was a result of someone saying that something couldn’t be done. Man could never fly, the earth could never be circumnavigated, cancer couldn’t be cured. If you look around, the world is full of can’ts just waiting to be broken. You can’t travel faster than the speed of light? You can’t eat gluten if you have celiac disease? You can’t operate a computer with your mind? Well, maybe not now, but who’s to say the technology won’t come along to make all those things possible?

The point is, as frustrating as “can’t” is, it’s not an absolute. It’s not something you should let stop you from looking for a better way. It’s certainly not something you should let stop you from reaching for your dreams. If you live life believing that “can’t” is an annoying mosquito instead of a debilitating illness, you will find a way to accomplish things that the world may never have imagined possible. There is a way. You can be the one to find it!