It looks like there's just one definition for the word can't.

can't - cannot

I've found that there's actually three true meanings behind the word.

  • Don't want to
  • Don't know how to
  • Will never be able to

Let's evaluate an example of each.

Don't want to

"I can't get up in the morning and work out (but I wish I could)."

I've been a night owl my entire life, and this is an example of something I always believed I simply couldn't do. Something I read by David Wong of Cracked prompted me to ask myself - if someone held a gun to my head and told me to get up in the morning and work out, would I?

Yeah, I'm gonna have to say I'd immediately become a morning person in that situation. The following week after I considered that, I ran a mile every day before work just to prove that I could.

This applies to a lot of statements we might make. "I can't lose weight", "I can't save any money", "I can't find time to study".

If you're making a can't statement, ask yourself that same question and evaluate if the true meaning of your statement evaluates to don't want to.

Here's some simple regex that will help you rewrite those statements and view them more realistically.

s/can't/don't want to

Then ask yourself why you made the statement in the first place.

Don't know how to

"I can't play the guitar (but I wish I could)."

This type of can't is a little different than "don't want to". There's a decision to evaluate.

The gun exercise won't help here, because you might be physically or mentally unable to play guitar right now, but you know you have the potential to learn, and that it's a possible thing to do. Talent is just a pursued interest, as Bob Ross said.

Will never be able to

"I can't fly (but I wish I could)."

Unfortunately no, you can't fly. Some things might not be worth the time to try doing or dreaming about, because they're not possible.


So what's the takeaway? It's easy to make excuses and find reasons not to do things we keep telling ourselves we want to do - generally, actions that are difficult but improve our lives in some way. At some point, if you say "I can't, I can't, I can't" enough, you believe it, and it starts to feel good to say and complain about.

Next time you say "I can't", consider what it means and what you get out of saying it.