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Can't vs. Won't: Know the Difference

How often do you find yourself saying you can't do something? The words you choose can determine your success.

I'm utterly convinced that a key element of personal and business success is the ability to differentiate correctly between "I can't" and "I won't."

As a rule, when somebody "can't" do something, it's because he or she lacks the skill to do it; when somebody "won't" do something, it's because he or she lacks the will to do it.

Here's a basic example:

  • "I can't do this job."  This means you currently lack the skills to accomplish this task.
  • "I won't do this job." This means you've decided not to accomplish this task, even though you could if you wanted to.

Though that distinction seems pretty clear, the losers in this world often say "I can't" when they mean "I won't":

  • "I can't quit my job and start my own business."
  • "I can't make 30 cold calls every morning."
  • "I can't quit smoking. It's just too hard."

Losers substitute "I can't" for "I won't" because it lets them off the hook. Because the activity is something they "can't" do, they can't reasonably be expected to do it. Their failure is therefore not really their fault. (Oh, really?)

By contrast, the winners in the world are more precise. They use "I can't" as a signal that they need to improve a skill, and they use "I won't" as a statement that they've made a decision.

  • "I can't make this business model work, so I must figure out how to change it."
  • "I can't understand why customers aren't buying, so I'm going to ask them what I'm doing wrong."
  • "I won't let myself get out of shape, because bad health would make it difficult for me to succeed."

By using "I can't" and "I won't" appropriately, winners take responsibility for their actions rather than making excuses. That's a major reason they're so successful.

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IMAGE: Getty
Last updated: Sep 4, 2012


Geoffrey James, a contributing editor for, is an author, speaker, and award-winning blogger. Originally a system architect, brand manager, and industry analyst inside two Fortune 100 companies, he's interviewed more than a thousand successful executives, managers, entrepreneurs, and gurus to discover how business really works. His most recent book is Business Without the Bullsh*t: 49 Secrets and Shortcuts You Need to Know. If you enjoyed this post, sign up for the free weekly Sales Source newsletter.

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