The conundrum of “can’t” – Part 1


I’m just going to come right out and say how much I love my CrossFit® gym.  There are many reasons for this, including the passion and connectedness of the coaches, the accepting and supportive atmosphere, the old-school simplicity of running, jumping, and lifting weights, and I could go on.  But what I love most is that, without expressly intending it, this place has redefined my understanding of the word “can’t.”  Let me explain.

Most of us understand the phrase “I can’t” to mean “I know that if I try I will fail, therefore I see no point in trying.”  How we come up with the impression that failure is a given can vary from person to person, or from situation to situation.  But I am going to use my personal CrossFit example.  When I crossed the threshold of the gym in October 2015, I knew for a fact that I “could not” (at the time I would have said “can’t”) do a pull-up.  And I proved it, mightily.  One of the coaches and I have a very vivid and laughable memory of me attempting to do a pull-up, searching for the posts on the pull-up rack with my feet so I could climb like a monkey, while he basically military-pressed my back to lift my chin above the bar.  Yeah.  Holy “can’t.”  I had never done a pull-up in my life; I actively tried and failed for the whole class at the gym to see… why should I think I was going to start doing pull-ups now?


I have a bit of an issue with the motivational tact of just insisting that people eliminate this phrase or word from their vocabulary.  Leaders across the country, and maybe internationally as well (in different languages, granted) — from kindergarten teachers to personal trainers to CEOs to parents — tell their subsidiaries to “get rid of ‘I can’t’” or “go from ‘I can’t’ to ‘I can’”.  The problem with this is that the listeners have an understanding of what it means to “can do” something, which is rooted in the present tense.  They may try to tell themselves “I can,” then they make an attempt to do whatever it is, meet failure, and find themselves defaulting to the simplest verbiage they have learned to assign to it.  That is, under the circumstances of ‘effort = failure’, the shortest way to describe this in the English language is “I can’t.”  It is technically and semantically a descriptor of the present tense, but we have a learned understanding of future application which is actually based on an observation of the past.

I’ll break it down.  “I can’t” may literally just mean “I try and I fail,” but the only way we know this is based on an attempt that resulted in failure (which, by definition of having completed an attempt with a known result, is in the past).  Based on that failure, we assume that future attempts will yield the same result.  Rather than make further attempts, we use the phrase that predicts failure to excuse ourselves from having to try again, mostly to avoid disappointment.  Let’s face it: if we attempt to do something it is because we have a hope for success.  If the attempt instead leads to failure, it sucks.  Why put ourselves through that?

I have a strong familiarity with this phrase in the patient care setting when it comes to managing issues that cause pain.  In these situations, patients are more often saying “I can’t” to mean “If I try [activity X], it causes intolerable pain” as opposed to meaning that trial results in failure.  For example, patients with back pain are often capable of bending down and getting back up, but after doing so it causes so much pain that the assumption becomes, “I can’t bend over.”  From the diagnostic perspective, there is a significant difference between having an actual motor limitation of being unable to flex or extend the spine a certain number of degrees, as opposed to having flexion or extension result in an undesirable sensation for the patient – the former possibly meaning anything from a severe irreversible rheumatologic condition to the growth of a tumor, the latter more likely being related to sprained or strained muscles.  But the same phrase (“I can’t bend”) is used by patients to describe both situations.  It’s no one’s fault that we culturally limit ourselves to overusing the words “can” and “can’t.”  But it might help to become more skillful in determining what is meant when it is said.

I have two school-aged sons.  In my home, after long-practiced repetitions over the past couple of years, we have learned (okay… are still learning!) to replace the phrase “I can’t” with “It’s hard, but I will try and I might need help.”  Yup, it’s a lot more words and it’s a lot harder to say when you’re a frustrated little boy.  But it helps to re-sculpt our mentality just a little.  It changes the observation of “tried –> failed” to acknowledging something is difficult but not impossible.  Then it replaces the assumption of future failure with a sense of intention and a contingency plan.  YES, maybe I am unable to do this on my own.  But with the proper resources, something that seemed un-doable just might be very doable after all.  And after a few attempts with some support, we often discover that what we thought could not be done becomes something we master without any help at all.


I have spent my life being stubbornly independent.  I do not at all feel comfortable relying on people to lift me up over a pull-up bar.  I wanted to use the “cheater band”, which is basically a giant rubber band that you can step in to help buoy your weight as you pull yourself up.  But that’s not how they do it at my gym.  I don’t know how many times I showed up for a workout involving pull-ups figuring I could use some form of cheat like the band, or maybe jumping up off a wooden box, and the coach would shake his or her head and insist that having a partner lift you either by the back or ankles was the only way to train your muscles to do the pull-up on your own.  And then I’m there, at the class, and we’re all doing it, we’re all literally lifting each other up.  It feels uncomfortable for the first minute or two.  Then we realize that we can do it, all because we are doing it together.  Which feels amazing.

In September 2016, 11 months after I first entered a CrossFit gym, I went in for a workout that involved doing five sets of 10 pull-ups (along with some other stuff).  That’s 50 pull-ups in a single workout.  I did them.  All 50 of them.  By myself.

And I have been doing pull-ups ever since.