Login or signup

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.

If you like this post, sign up for the free Sales Source newsletter.

IMAGE: Getty
Last updated: Sep 4, 2012

GEOFFREY JAMES did a lot of business stuff and wrote a slew of articles and books. Now he writes this column. Preorder his new book, Business Without the Bullsh*t, by May 12 and get an exclusive bonus chapter and a signed bookplate.

Register on Inc.com today to get full access to:
All articles  |  Magazine archives | Comment and share features

Or sign up using: