I Can, But I Won’t: The Power of Words Which Take Ownership

How often do you utter the words “I can’t”?

Until recently, I said it a lot. Once, I tried counting for a day; I hit eight times, and I probably missed a few.

The problem is, in virtually every situation, it simply isn’t true.

No, I can’t fly and no, I can’t grow a pair of gills, but I could in fact make it to my office happy hour this Wednesday; I simply choose not to make that a priority right now.

Of course, when I’m invited to a happy hour that I’d rather not go to (I’m an introvert who prefers small, intimate gatherings and usually, I’d rather go home and see my kids), it’s understandable that I don’t want to seem rude. And in some cases, it’s simply easier to say “I can’t” than to say provide the longer but more accurate answer. Most of us don’t think of it as lying to someone when we say “I can’t”; it’s merely a habit.

For these reasons (amongst others), we explain our decisions as if the universe were physically restraining us, rather than owning up to the free will we each possess. Similarly:

  • I don’t have to take my kids to swimming tonight; I get to take them to swimming.
  • When my wife asks me to help her with something that I’d honestly rather not do, I don’t need to start on dinner instead; I can stop what I’m doing for now any way. I get to be married and in a great relationship.
  • My daughter’s behavior didn’t make me mad; I simply lost my temper. I get to choose how I act, I get to choose how I will perceive her and I will do better next time.
  • As of this moment, I can’t play the piano or grill a perfect steak, but I could learn.
  • If I’m not a morning person or a great speaker or as fit as I’d like to be, none of those things are “just the way I am”; I can embrace the uncomfortable work of making important changes (assuming of course, that I would like to be those things).

Aside from misdirecting our friends or co-workers, this blame-shifting language is far more insidious when its internal. Justifying ourselves to someone else is one thing; justifying ourselves to ourselves is another entirely.

The bottom line is this: if I’m not responsible for the way I think and behave, then I’m unlikely to take the steps necessary to improve my life. If my success or happiness is merely a matter of luck or fate — of waiting for the right people to do the right things — then I’ll always be waiting.

There’s great power in this subtle shift in words! I may not be able to choose what happens to me in life, but I can always choose how I respond to it. I am not a victim; you’re not a victim. We all make commitments — to work, to family — which mean stuff that isn’t necessarily fun. When I say “I won’t”, rather than “I can’t”, I reaffirm to myself that I take ownership of what I say or do next.

Chris Aram

I'm one-half of Webster Park Digital. I'm a devoted family man, avid reader, coffee snob, fajita-eater and professional PlayStation4 dabbler.