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“I Can’t” is a Self Fulfilling Prophecy

Bok Choy Delight

Jen starts out a post on Fire in the Kitchen with a statement, “I Can’t Cook”– she follows a nice thought path of using that as a metaphor for her ideas (and frustrations) on what she sees (I think) as an overemphasis on the tools of Web 2.0 and a frustration at one size fits all “recipes” for using such technology in education.

I like/respect Jen. She was fun last year as a twitter-a-holic, and then she has recently pulled back to seriously ponder the mania. She’s asking herself some tough questions. And I got to meet her at Northern Voice and she’s just as cool in person.

At the same time, I dont fully grok her discontent, but am interested to see it play out.

But as one who reaches for them often, too often perhaps– metaphors are at last 2 edged devices. It was her opening statement of “I Can’t” that got me thinking to how much power we give to those 2 (actually 3 since there is a grammatical contraction) words. But its my contention we too easily fall into our “I Can’ts” and don’t try enough to go beyond them.

I can’t do math.
I can’t be creative.
I can’t write.
I can’t create a web site.
I can’t play music.
I can’t edit a video,
I can’t do 100 pushups.

When we fall into “I Can’ts” we lock ourselves into filling that as truth. I tried to call Jen on that in her comments. If she says, “I can’t cook” then that’s cuts off effort to counter the assertion. She responds:

Alan, I mention that I “can’t,” only to emphasize that it’s because I’ve not gathered the information and abilities I need. If I take the time to do that, I’m sure I’ll be able to make you the saltiest squirrel pie you’ve ever tasted!

If you stretch that attitude to a student who says, “I can’t do math” do you just let them not try?

Stop “I Cant-ing” and start trying.

Like being “smart” there is some illusion that cooking food is some arcane task mastered by a few heralded geniuses. C’mon, it is really simple- you apply heat to food. Toss in some seasoning. There are more ways to go right than wrong.

And I’ve said myself before “I can’t cook” but now where I am the only one on my house now to make food I am going at it with experimental zeal. The photo above? A complete experiment, and ti came out great. Others don’t. But I am not going to flail in my kitchen about what I ab unable to do; I’m gonna try now to see what I can do.

A few years ago I said, “I can’t run” –then I went out and tried, and ran a few half marathons and than a full one. My point is not to brag (well maybe a little bit), but to say, let’s not lock ourselves into “I Can’t”.

Say it enough and it becomes true.

Of course, I am tangenting off of Jen’s post, and I bet she does cook as her family is likely not starving. But I am tuned in now when I hear people recite thing things they “Can’t” do. Don’t tell me the things you “Can’t” do and tell me the things you are trying to do.

Oh one more thing.

I can’t fold fitted sheets. I have had detailed lessons, followed the steps, and it still defies me. Someone call me on my stuff.

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Profile Picture for Alan Levine aka CogDog
An early 90s builder of the web and blogging Alan Levine barks at on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person.


  1. Your article here reminds me of a part of Liz Danzico’s inspirational session “The Framework Age: Designing for improvisation” at An Event Apart SF. She mentioned how a particular design team during meetings instead of saying “No, but” and similar made themselves say “Yes, and”, which is a characteristic of stand up improve.

    I think I’m going to get a lot out of this improvisation concept. It seems the natural compliment to being adaptive.

  2. In a self-contradictory, or at least apparently self-loathing, statement, I hate sweeping generalisations like this.

    I can’t run a marathon may be a statement of optional limits rather than absolute truth – although I have an orthopaedic surgeon or two who will tell you otherwise. I can’t safely and reliably run a marathon today is a statement of truth that no amount of trying will change – and the effort might just kill me (most likely by drowning given the weather here at the moment).

    I can’t hear you is a matter of basically incontrovertible physical truth. Training and practise might help me lip-read what you’re saying, but won’t help me hear you, nor will any amount of trying.

    When a learner comes up to you and wails “I can’t do this assignment” telling them “Go and try” is probably not the best approach. Trying to find out where their stumbling blocks are and how to work around them might take a long time, but if you do it right you get students who can because someone has taken the time to give them the support that they need to understand how. In that sense, listening to the “I can’t…” can actually empower the learner and give them skills they will use for life. Or you might find you really have set an impossible task: one of my lecturers when I was an undergraduate grabbed the wrong piece of paper and set a final year specialist assignment to a group of first year students, and the first year assignment to the final year students. He realised something was wrong when about 1/5 of the first years came to complain “I can’t do this assignment.” Whilst they might have been able to look something up and have a go, they really didn’t have the extra two years of tuition to be able to do the work to the required standard.

    As for you and folding fitted sheets? Why not? Where does it go wrong? I’m not going to fly over to give you 1:1 lessons but maybe you need to find a tutor to give you some direct personal attention and you should regard your “I can’t…” as an indicator you should seek help?

  3. I definitely agree. That is why all of my students had to write “I am a Born Winner” on every paper they turned in for a grade. I figured if they could brainwash themselves about what they coudn’t do, I needed to try to turn them in the other direction. I had lunch with a student who was in my class 16 years ago, and she mentioned this. She said that when times got tough in her life (a divorce and 2 kids later), she remembered that she was a born winner and it helped her get through those times. We need to combat the “I Can’ts” with something students can fight with.

  4. @Eloise: Touche on your points, I appreciate them all. Ironically I has another post in mind about the pitfalls of generalizing ones singular experiences to everyone else’s. I ought to have said, in my opinion, there are a certain range of areas where people say I Can’t is a barrier to trying. I do not expect people to overcome the impossible (like suggesting blind people try harder to see or pigs flying…) and nor do I think self-bootstrapping w/o help is the way around it. When I ran a marathon, I joined a team, got coaching, and lots of support; it wa snot just tying on shoes and doing it out of sheer will.

    Thinking of your example with the students and the paper, I read that as a situation where they did go out and try, did make the appropriate effort, and yes, it is justified to say, “I can’t do this assignment *because* of __________-”

    But thanks for calling me on this, twas more thnking out loud than suggestion any universal truths. And as far as the sheets, that was supposed to be a joke, yes I need help!

  5. Alan,

    I was actually recently talking about something similar with a friend and I would argue that far more damaging than letting students say “I can’t” and then not pushing them to try is when teachers or parents say “You can’t” (or variations on that such as “you’re just not good at this”).

    This is not only letting our students wallow in self-deprecation, but but actually causes it to begin, or at least reinforces their own misconceptions about their abilities.

    Too often parents and teachers are guilty of this one.

  6. I can’t come up with decent metaphors ;) But seriously, I wasn’t allowed to say “can’t,” growing up, so I probably say it more than I should now. Mr. Injenuity does all the cooking, or we get takeout. I would love to talk more about the disconnect if you start a post on that. I don’t think I’ve disconnected. I just deleted one account.

  7. Oh, you’re going about the folded sheets all wrong. Who says whether they are folded right or not? I say if the goal is to fold so that you can store them some where, then your fold is a success if indeed you were able to store them somewhere. Who’s complaining? No one. Success! It’s not like there is a sheet folding Olympics or something. You can do it! :-)

  8. There are so many times that I say “I can’t”. Even when I began classes this fall, I found myself saying “I can’t take two classes with everything else I have to do.” It really made me consider dropping one of the classes, and then my husband reminded me that I could. He said “you have always done it before and you can do it again.” We will never know if we can do anything unless we give it our best and do our best. That is all that is required.

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