I often hear people say, “I can’t.” The list of what we can’t do is long: can’t fly, can’t become a professional athlete, can’t lose weight, can’t go back in time, can’t get to work on time. I can’t actually means a lot of different things, but i can be helpful to pause and consider what we actually mean when we say I can’t. I can’t could mean a whole lot of different things. It could mean, for example, that something is not possible— breaks the laws of thermodynamics. I can’t could mean that doing something is improbable—theoretically possible but unlikely, like winning the lottery. Or it can mean unimportant— not important enough to spend time on, because other things are more important.
Impossible: The list of things that are not possible is long. For example, it is not possible to break the laws of physics. This category broadly includes things that are not possible now— it’s not possible to time travel (even if, theoretically, it could happen). It is not possible to swim around the world. Things that are impossible are not going to happen, even with an incredible amount of luck, intense preparation, and being in just the right place at just the right time. Put another way, even if all the stars align, this is still not in the cards. When we say I can’t about something that is impossible, we mean it. It just can’t be done.
Improbable: The list of things that are improbable is probably just as long as the list of things that are impossible. What’s improbable? Odds of winning the Powerball: one in 292,201,338. Could l become an Olympic Gold medalist? Not likely— I’m a so-so athlete, too old to compete in the sports I’m any good at, and even with a huge amount of dedication, there are likely loads of people better than me. If I decided it was my life’s dream to become an Olympic Curler, could I make it? Maybe, but not likely. When we say I can’t about something that is improbable, we mean that it is highly unlikely, even if we put a lot of effort into it, or even if we get lucky.
Not important: This is the trickiest category, and one most important to today’s essay. When we say I can’t, what we often mean is I don’t want to. Or we mean, This isn’t important to me. This is a low priority— I won’t devote the time that would be required. This is not necessarily a bad thing. When we establish priorities, we are saying that some things are more important, and therefore other things are therefore less important. For example, if I said “I can’t travel around the world right now,” what I mean is, traveling around the world for me right now is not a priority. Traveling around the world does not break any law of thermodynamics, and if it were important to me, I could probably make it happen. However, doing so would mean dramatically shifting my priorities– away from work, family, and my community, and towards an expedition around the world. That shift in priorities is not consistent with my values, and so I choose not to do it.
These different meanings of I can’t are useful to think about, because we often put things in the wrong category. We say, “I can’t just drop everything and travel around the world,” and when we say this, we think and mean It is impossible or It is improbable. In reality, though, it is neither– it is instead not a priority. Or, to be more specific, doing it would require trade-offs and changes in priorities that I’m not willing to make.
Taking a different example, someone might say I can’t exercise daily. This is neither impossible nor improbable. Instead, it requires a certain set of priorities and a certain amount of effort. The effort to make this happen may be considerable, may involve trade-offs, and not or may not be worth it, but it is eminently possible. However, when we miscategorize this as impossible or improbable, we are not really being honest with ourselves. We think it is outside the realm of possibility, when in fact, it is not a priority for us.
To continue the example of exercising daily, it might not actually be a priority. There may be other things in life that are more important, that preclude exercise from happening. In that case, I can’t would more accurately be stated as, “At this time, my work and family commitments are a higher priority for me than regular exercise. Therefore, while I could exercise, it would take away from other commitments which matter more to me. Therefore, I am choosing not to exercise, because I want to spend my time in these other areas instead.”
This is helpful to differentiate because clearly reflecting on our priorities, and relating them to how we spend our time, allows us to feel good about our choices when our priorities match our commitments. If you are comfortable with prioritizing family and work over health, and therefore are not exercising, it makes it much easier to stop feeling guilty about not going to the gym. It’s just not a priority.
On the other hand, when our priorities and commitments are not in sync, and we recognize this (as opposed to incorrectly saying something is impossible), we can examine what we are saying is important, and how we are allocating our time, and hopefully bring these into harmony. We could recognize that we are prioritizing YouTube over exercise, realize that this allocation of time does not match our priorities, and make changes.
I can’t means different things. It might mean something is impossible, improbable, or just not important. Being true to ourselves about what we really mean when we say I can’t opens up space for us to be honest about our priorities and time commitments. In turn, this self-honesty allows us to make changes when needed, or let go of nagging doubts when our priorities and time commitments are in alignment. So, what about you? What do you believe you can’t do? Is that something impossible, improbable, or not important?