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That Old “Can’t Do” Spirit! Part 1

That Old “Can’t Do” Spirit! Part 1

Eleanor Roosevelt famously remarked, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” Nobody, that is, except for my nine-year old daughter Sophie who sat next to me at the breakfast table gleefully mastering a week’s worth of New York Times math puzzles, while I thumbed through the Arts and Leisure section, looking for the latest gossip on my favorite TV show, GLEE.

“Mom. Mom. MOM!” Sophie interrupted my reading. “Can you help me with this one?”

I was like a deer in the headlights. Could I? I honestly didn’t know if would be able to help my child with a math puzzle geared for grown-ups. I also wasn’t sure ifI wanted to find out.

“I don’t know if I can,” I admitted, wondering if my brief Junior High School stint as a Mathlete would come to my aid. I was also secretly hoping that Sophie would leave me to peruse my other favorite sections of the newspaper, where I could kvell over the wedding announcements (Sunday Styles), plan exotic, expensive and impractical family vacations (Travel), and pick up a few management tips to use in an upcoming presentation (Sunday Business). I never even knew that the paper had math puzzles, and if I had known, I would have cast them aside with the Automobiles section and ad inserts.

“Mom,” Sophie pressed once again. “Would you help me with this one?”

Now that was an entirely different question. While I had my doubts that I could help, I certainly was willing to give it a try. So I put aside my planning for a month-long, five-star African Safari to give Sophie some help. The good news was that I was able to give her a small amount of direction to get her unstuck, and with that little bit of information, she aced yet another puzzle. The better news is that Sophie knew that I was willing to offer my assistance whether or not my assistance would prove fruitful. The best news? For me, it was that I actually could do something that I had written off as a couldn’t.

Over the years, I have learned to distinguish for myself, my family, and for my clients the critical differences between three key behavioral barriers: Can’t, Won’t and Don’t.

I first learned about these three blocks to performance from my former manager when I worked as the Director of Training and Education for the Jewish Federations of North America, Debbi Roshfeld. Debbi, who now serves as the Chief Operating Officer for the Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County, taught me to look at gaps in personal and professional performance through the lens of these three questions:

• Is this something you can’t do?

• Is this something you won’t do?

• Is this something you don’t do?

When something isn’t getting done, isn’t getting done well, or isn’t getting done quickly enough, it’s time to channel your inner Sherlock Holmes and start investigating.

Let’s start at can’t (why? Because we can!). “Can’t do” represents a lack of skill, expertise, experience, or resources. I often work with Jewish Day Schools whose board members are excited to have a new mission and vision for their schools, but “can’t” facilitate the process themselves, perhaps due to a lack of experience or resources. That’s where I come in, and by the end of the process, the school has a new mission and vision, and the board members now know how to do – and how to replicate – this process. They have moved from can’t to can – and can again in the future.

Sometimes “can’t do” is a roadblock of permission . My kids can’t stay home alone by themselves yet because they don’t have my husband’s and my consent to do so. Even though they probably have the skills they need – how to call 911, how to ignore someone at the front door, and how to eat their way through our snack drawer – they don’t have the bosses’ ok. So it’s a can’t — for now.

Chances are, if you work in an organization, you’ve had a terrific idea where you had the knowledge, skill and ability to execute it, but you didn’t have the resources (time, money) or permission (support from the team or the boss), so it’s a can’t. Your task then becomes one of thinking strategically about how you might obtain the resources and agreement you need to turn you can’t into a can. Or your task could be to postpone it until the variables change.

Or to forget it all together. Or to take the idea out on your own. And those choices are up to you – to your level of investment, your appetite for risk, and to your energy level.

Ask Yourself:

• What “can’t do’s” are showing up for you that are getting in the way of your personal goals?

• Your professional goals?

• Your team’s or organization’s goals?

• Your family’s goals?

• What’s at the root here?

• Are you sure that your can’t is really, truly a can’t? If so, what can you do to acquire the knowledge, skill, expertise, resources or permission you need to move forward?

If you’re not sure, read on, and meet Moses. When God asked Moses to lead the Jewish people and to transmit God’s messages to them, Moses claimed a “can’t”. He described himself as a poor orator, afflicted with a speech impediment, and pulled in brother Aaron to become his mouthpiece.

I’m a big Moses fan, of course, and I have all his books – but I think his “can’t” was really a “won’t”. While “can’t” is about ability, “won’t” is about motivation and confidence. While Moses may not have been the most gifted speaker, he could do it if pressed. He didn’t want to speak because he didn’t feel confident about his speaking, and perhaps even lacked the motivation to take on such a public role.

For anyone who has ever potty trained a child (or two at once, as was my case for the longest and messiest 8 months of my life), the distinction between can’t and won’t is clear. I knew my kids were physically capable of, um, excreting their toxins.

Our challenge? Location, location, location – which was an issue of motivation, confidence, and sheer will. M&M’s helped with the motivation, abundant positive reinforcement helped with the confidence, and a consistent commitment of time and energy helped with the will. That, and the belief that Jacob and Sophie would not stand under the chuppah in Huggies.

Ask Yourself:

• What “won’t do’s” keep appearing?

• How often are you thinking or hearing, “it isn’t in my job description” (a classic “won’t do” tip off)?

• How are you overtly or covertly rewarding “won’t” behaviors?

• What could you do to build motivation, confidence, support and a culture where people in your home or organization feel rewarded for going outside of their comfort zones?

• How could you rally yourself, your organization and your family to honor the spirit of the law rather than the letter of it?

• What “won’ts” won’t you tolerate any longer?

Which brings us to “don’t”. “Don’t do” is loaded, and while I can address it now, I won’t– because it deserves its own investigation and exploration. And also because Sophie is waiting for me to help her with another math puzzle – and that’s something I can and will do!

Deborah Grayson Riegel is a certified coach, speaker and trainer who helps individuals, teams and organizations achieve personal and professional success through her high-energy workshops, presentations and one-on-one coaching. Visit her online at or

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