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I’m not in the “can’t” business

Recently at the end of a coaching session, a client asked me, “So, you aren’t going to tell me I’m crazy for wanting to do this?”

My answer was: “I’m not in the can’t business”.

I am not sure where that thought came from. But it has stuck with me the past days as something that is important to me. I know that she had been holding on to her career idea for a long time. She had probably told herself she was “crazy” enough times. She was probably convinced that I would reach the same conclusion.

But it never crossed my mind that she was overstepping.

What did I mean by that statement? What is the “can’t” business?

The can’t business tells you all of the reasons something won’t work. It says “you lack time, money, motivation, skills, experience”. It tells you others will think you are crazy. The can’t business shuts something down based on a gut feeling, an irrational reaction or an imagined frame of reality. You have probably heard that phrase, “the past is not an predictor of the future”. The can’t business believes the past defines the future. That is the way of saying why something can’t happen. Why “it” won’t work for that person.

So many of us are our biggest critic. We tell ourselves all the reasons why something won’t work. We bring up all of the old reasons that “prove” we won’t follow through on whatever endeavor we are considering. We conjure a story in our mind and then immediately formulate all the reasons it won’t work. We specialize in telling ourselves why not. We are really good at this!

This is not to say that every idea is a good one. Obviously, something illegal, against the law of physics (“I want to run a two-hour marathon”) or clearly infeasible after a short consideration (” I want to make $1,000,000 in my coaching business but only work part time”) are exceptions. I am not talking about those.

I am talking about the ideas for making your life more fulfilling. That desire to start a new business like this client. The goal to do something different with our life. The desire to travel or explore a hobby more deeply. These are all attainable. We all have some untapped potential. It may not be easy to achieve that dream job or life. The path may be steep and rocky. Getting to where we want to go may only yield another goal beyond the original.

But pursuing something meaningful is magical. The energy we get from striving is enormous. Being in the middle of doing what you love to do makes the days memorable.

So don’t let someone – especially yourself – be in the “can’t business” with you. Trust yourself that you will logically, critically, honestly know you are on the right track. Know that it will be hard. Know that there will be self-doubt. Know that there will be people questioning you. But know that the “can’t business” doesn’t predict the future. It knows less than you do.


Making Progress on “Big Rocks”

Ever find yourself doing things that clash with your long term goals? You end up doing something that, upon reflection, moves you no closer to where you want to be, and might not have even been rewarding. Why do we do that?

Social Scientist Dan Ariely wrote (“6 Reasons You Keep Making Decisions That Work Against You”) about some of the common reasons why our short-term actions prevent us from taking care of these “big rocks”. He uses the term “big rocks” as a metaphor for our really important undertakings. Those are the decisions or actions we must undertake that require a lot of time and effort. We face them, but often do not take action on them. I won’t repeat his article. But I believe one of his strategies is a good one for thinking about career/life transitions.

One of Ariely’s six reasons was this:

We Prefer Activities That Help Us Feel That We Are “Done”

Unlike small, unimportant tasks, the challenge with big rocks is that our efforts aren’t immediately rewarded with visible progress. Responding to 15 unimportant emails has a tangible output of 15 emails, and this can makes us feel like our morning was well spent.

What about thinking critically for an hour? These kinds of activities are often accompanied by no tangible output, which makes us feel as if we have made no progress.

The key to success here is to break down the big rocks into smaller milestones so that you can feel a sense of progress. Then mark your progress on each milestone in a visual, dashboard-like way, so you can see your progress and be encouraged by it.

Let’s say you are planning your next large project and to get a sense of progress you break the overall task into: creating a shortlist of ideas, creating a pro/con grid for each idea, create a list of requirements and dependencies, etc.

We get a lot of pleasure from crossing finished tasks off the to-do list. Let’s make it easier to get that wonderful feeling while working on the big rocks.

I think he is on to something there. Big tasks are hard to do. They take time. They take sustained effort. The rewards are oftentimes not reaped until the undetermined future. Along the way, we will hit roadblocks. There will be detours and unanticipated challenges. So the “big rocks”, like thinking about our career and how it fits into our life, often gets shunted aside. The reward is too nebulous and too far in the future. The effort is hard and often unrewarded. Could breaking the big rocks down into a series of smaller rocks be the way to lessen the immediate challenge and lead to immediate reward for the effort?

It is really hard to do something and not get immediately rewarded for doing it.  We are not wired that way. The reward does not have to be something big. We just like to be acknowledged for effort. We all feel this way. When doing some activity we want to believe there is an “accomplishment” at the end. Getting something done, however small, feels like we are being productive. So we naturally (unconsciously) measure the effort/reward. The small tasks usually win out.

But is this thinking really productive? Is it really in our best interests? As Ariely notes, clearing out 15 e-mails is doing something. But is it the best use of our time at that moment? Is it advancing our well-being?

Let’s put it in concrete terms. How about the person who is job seeking, but spends an hour or two straightening up their garage? That certainly is something accomplished. There is a tangible reward for the effort, the garage might look good. But it is the best use of time on a Tuesday morning, when they should be looking for a job?

Probably not.

Cleaning the garage is an accomplishment, but it is the best thing to do when trying to decide on your career?

But the effort/reward ratio can feel better, in the moment, than trying to tackle something really big.

Trying to figure out the answer to the question “What’s next in my career and life?” is a really big rock. There are so many things to think about. Do I start with where I want to be? Or should I start with where I am today? For some people, it is easier to decide what I don’t want rather than what I do want. Do I move to a new industry? Do I expand my search to a larger geographic area? Just settling on an approach is overwhelming. But perhaps that is the small first step required. Once you have an approach, you can move to the next logical step in your approach. Maybe that is brainstorming. Maybe that is contacting former colleagues and bosses.

Sometimes the best way to accomplish something big is to recognize that the task is bigger than one person can do. Asking for help, joining a small group, finding an accountability partner, are all ways to get help. A different perspective can help you see progress, to find a way.

I think using Ariely’s approach of breaking the large rocks into smaller chunks is very viable. Here are my thoughts on the steps to break the big rocks

  1. Decide on an approach – a way that works for you. Ask the questions I have asked above
  2. Decide if you want to do it alone or with help
  3. Understand where you are today. What do you like? What are your strengths, accomplishments and talents? What interests you? What don’t you like about today?
  4. Think about when (this month, this year?) change is viable. Be honest. “If not now, when?”
  5. Start to envision the future. What does your ideal career look like? How does that career blend with your life? What skills and interests do you want to utilize?
  6. Be willing to write this down  and share with others at some points in time

The list is only a start. But it is a way to break that big rock apart. Aren’t you worth it?

If you want to read Ariely’s full post, it is here:

“I’m Fine”

“I’m fine”.

That is one of my least-favorite answers I get from people. But at other times it is my most-favorite answer I hear from people.

Why is it my least favorite? Because it is often a cop out. People will say they are “fine” as a way to deflect. They hope you will not ask anything more. It allows them to answer, without really being honest and insightful. “Fine” in this context means so many things, it is rendered meaningless. Who hasn’t said their job is going fine or their spouse is fine or their kids are fine? How about asking your kids how school is going? “It’s fine” (which is usually said with body language that says, don’t ask any more questions). It is sometimes an automatic response, given without any thought or meaning. We give it in the very rational thinking that the person already has something else to say, so they won’t probe the “fine” answer we gave them. It is almost as bad as ignoring the other person’s question.

So, why is it sometimes my favorite answer?

Because it allows me to follow up and really get the other person to think. I will often ask the person, “Is that a ‘good’ fine or a ‘great’ fine or just a ‘okay’ fine?” I want to really know how they are doing. Now I can stop them in their tracks and ask them to give me a gradient on the response. I really am interested.

The word “fine” can mean a lot of different things. When paired with “china” or “dining”, it means a really high-quality item. Fine dining is going out to eat in a nicer restaurant. The fine china is the best we have and is only used for special occasions. As an adjective, fine can mean first-rate, great, exceptional, outstanding, splendid, magnificent, superb, or wonderful. But as an adverb, it can mean satisfactory.

So which one of those many spins on the word do you mean?

When a person says they are doing “fine”, I rarely find someone who really means “splendid” or “superb”. They generally mean mediocre at best. So why not be truthful and say “mediocre”? It is uncomfortable to face reality sometimes. We don’t want to talk to the other person. We don’t want to admit the truth to ourselves. There are many excuses.

There is a danger in answering the “How are . . .?” question with “fine”. Beyond deceiving the other person, might we be deceiving our self? Might we be allowing ourselves to settle for second rate? If you constantly go through life being “fine” but not meaning the great or exceptional definition, what are you doing?

Is there a danger in answering “fine”, when reality is something totally different?

I truly believe that “fine”, said with a low, unenthusiastic tone becomes self-fulfilling. We learn to settle for mediocrity. We decide to not acknowledge our true state. We decide to not engage in a conversation with the other person. We may miss a chance to be with someone who might be interested, helpful or empathetic.

If you say your job or your job search is going fine, how is the listener supposed to react to that answer? In too many cases, it sounds like you are “okay”. The other person assumes you don’t need help or support. You sound disinterested in furthering the conversation. You answered the question just like most everyone else does. How does that make you stand out?

Try this sometime. Be honest. If it is not going well, say so. If it is great, say so. I try to answer that question with “great” most of the time. I want people to know my enthusiasm for what I am doing. I want to get them interested in knowing more. I want them to feel my energy. Who knows where the conversation might go?

“So, What Do You Do?”

Do you ever think about how much your personal identity is tied to your career? Probably not, unless you are a stay-at-home mom or dad, out of work or retired. But I can tell you, your personal identity = your career for many people.

The title to this post is a standard question we get asked when we meet someone for the first time or run into an acquaintance we have not seen for a while. It is an easy conversation starter. To be honest, it is often not a question the person is looking for real insight on. They just are being polite, or don’t have a better conversation opener at hand.

But to certain people, it is a tough question. Generally, if you are not doing a paid job, people don’t know how to react to your answer.

For someone who is out of work, it is an uncomfortable question. Your answer is some variation on “I am looking for work”. Then you wonder what the other person thinks of you. Sometimes it makes any follow-on conversation awkward.

I had a client who had a very successful career. At a point in their life, they decided they wanted to do volunteer work as their vocation. They are on a couple non-profit boards. They do major fund raising. They do some mentoring of at-risk youth. But when asked that”what do you do?” question, they did not know how to best answer it. “Volunteer” does not begin to define what it is they are doing. They felt like it was letting other people down.

A stay-at-home parent, even though people understand it as a noble endeavor, throws the questioner off. How do you react? How do you follow up that answer?

As I have spent more time career coaching, I have discovered how deeply embedded our jobs are in defining our self. Being a salesperson, an engineer, a lawyer or a plumber paints a picture for most people. When you tell people “your job”, it is easy for them to fill in (rightly or wrongly) “what you are”. You feel good about answering the question (even if you hate your job). If they truly want to talk about what you do for a living, they have a convenient frame to work from. At least no one is embarrassed.

I find it very interesting that a “conventional” answer to that “what do you do” question, however nebulous the answer, is acceptable. I guess it shows the lack of depth of the original question.

For a person not having a paying job, or not having a conventional job, this “so, what do you do” question really makes things uncomfortable. How do you best say “I am looking for a job”? You are trying to read the other person’s intent, so your answer might vary. You might just be out for dinner or a drink, and have no interest in a conversation about your “situation” (because it is what you are already thinking about all of the time anyhow). The conversation becomes awkward, often because the other person was using that question simply to be friendly, not to seek insight. Now what do you talk about?

I think this points to two things. First, we really should take a moment to think about how we engage others. Using a standard opener question may not lead to insight. Is there a better way to initially engage with someone? We are so quick to say something that we don’t put much thought into it.

Second, isn’t it interesting how we make assumptions about an answer, if it fits something close to what we expect to hear? An “office worker” or “salesperson” can mean a broad range of things. But getting that answer allows us to frame the answer into our own perception – right or wrong.

So the next time you find yourself wanting to ask, “So, what do you do?”, think about if you really want to have a conversations around that. And how it might help or stymie your conversation.


As Warren Buffett says: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”

How many of us follow that advice? In our interactions with people, do we “think about that” and “do things differently”? We run into situations every day that test us. Our numerous interactions push and pull us in many directions. Sometimes our ego, or desire to be clever, funny or irreverent creates a desire for action before thinking.

Let me give a couple examples.

I am as impatient as anyone else. I hate getting in a line at the grocery store, the restaurant or at the stop light behind someone moving slowly. My immediate impression is to want to sigh, roll my eyes or figure out a way to move elsewhere (while still showing my disgust at them for slowing me down). When someone is talking, going on forever (it seems to me), I have the urge to say to them “Get to the point!”. I am sure my body language says that for me. I don’t like meetings where the purpose of the meeting is not clear and stated up front. What do I want to be my reputation then to be?

Think about all of the times you have wanted to respond to an e-mail in some sarcastic way. How about re-tweeting a tweet that is off color, unpopular or just slants for/against a particular person or cause? Who doesn’t repeat a story you heard (is it a true story or a rumor)? How does that fit the reputation you really want?

Ponder when we find ourselves talking to someone else after a particularly frustrating experience. We want to complain about, comment on, or be mean spirited about another person, perhaps because they “deserved it”. Maybe we want to try to be funny. Perhaps in putting down the other, we feel like we are doing the right thing or fitting in. It’s likely we just want to feel “in” and make them feel “out”.

Every one of these examples are about building ourselves up. Every one of these little moments can tarnish our reputation. If said to the wrong person, or about the wrong person, it can ruin our reputation.

How do I define my “good name”?

There are a number of simple arguments for wanting to make that comment, re-tweet or forward that e-mail. We think them all of the time. We might ask. “Am I being untrue to myself if I hold back”? “I have got to be me”. “People are too sensitive” “I am tired of being told to be politically correct”. ”

That is the point where you get to decide what your reputation is. Perhaps you wish your reputation to be the person who “always speaks their mind”. Maybe it is the very cautious, diplomatic or politically correct person. You could be the person who “everyone knows he/she is that way”, the open book. That may be you. But is that reputation serving you well? Always? Do you have to have only one reputation, usable in all situations?

I have learned to be a “thinker” in more situations as Warren Buffet notes above. I believe that has served me well. Because that “five minutes” could really save my reputation – and save what I truly want to be remembered as.


Assumptions and Communicating

I had a great reminder the other day about coaching, honesty and openness. It made me realize I have a long way to go. But, I like a challenge, so I will keep trying.

I have a goal to live being open and honest more of the time. My coaching practice is based on not making assumptions about the other person or the situation. Being open to whatever comes my way in a discussion creates the chance for a wealth of possibilities. If I don’t have a preconceived notion about someone, we could talk about a lot of different things. That is what makes a discussion fun!

So here is what served as a reminder for me. I was having a conversation with someone that was going to require me to devote some hours to them. I made the assumption, before we had a conversation, that person would need “20 hours” minimum before they would consider me serious. I have no idea where that number came from, other than me. I did not want to “disappoint” them with too few hours. Nor did I want to commit too many hours. So, I came up with a number. In other words, I made an assumption about what they wanted, and decided I needed to meet their “need” (or more correctly, my assumption of their need).

It turns out they needed half that amount of time.

And that amount of time actually works out best for me.

That is an amount of time I could work without having to change my schedule in any meaningful way. I could fit that in. Twenty hours was going to require some (uncomfortable) adjustments to my schedule. Half that, optimal.

So, here I was, creating an expectation and then trying to fulfill that created expectation. Even though it was not optimal for me. And it was not based on any facts. I was giving the person an answer I thought they wanted, not what I wanted.


This episode was a excellent wake up for me. It’s a great reminder to be very careful in making assumptions. To what end was my assumption going to fulfill? I would have been committed to more time than I wanted. Or, the other person might have rejected me, or felt they were letting me down. Here I am, a coach who is attuned to not making assumptions, yet I made one. Might others be doing the same to me? It is a reminder to really listen to the answers I get as a coach from a client. Sometimes the client might be telling me what they think I want to hear, not what they really think.

How often do you find yourself in this situation? Not wanting to “let someone down” or “sound dumb” or “seem ungrateful”? You assume the other person is looking for some skill or some intelligent insight, so you conjure up a way to say it. You give them the answer YOU think they want to hear. Do you believe that comes across as sincere? Does it really tell your story? Is it said with conviction? Or doubt? It somehow feels easier to make an assumption and go with your instinct, instead of asking a question (“I will look uncertain of myself”). But is assuming REALLY better than clarifying?

I also turn this onto the people on the other side of the table in a hiring situation. You are an empathetic person who might not want to disappoint someone else (“I appreciate your time, we will get back to you in the future”) even though you know it is not going to work out. In this case, is your assumption (“not disappoint someone”) really helpful?

“Assuming” is a word that has many definitions. It is great when you are “taking control”. But it is not nearly as good when you are “pretending” or “supposing”. You get the choice. Think about how “assuming” is helping you.


A speaker I heard the other day was talking about how a mentor/coach was trying to explain how they would work together. The coach said that two of them would be “moving at the speed of your determination”. That phrase stuck with me.

I started thinking about determination: “the act of deciding definitely and firmly” or “firm or fixed intention to achieve a desired end”. Synonyms include the words “boldness”, “conviction” and “tenacity”. Determination is an overt act or intention to get to an end.

Determination seems to me to be one of our characteristics that we have a lot of reserves. Generally, determination doesn’t get worn out or worn down. We might decide to stop, but it seems to be a more consciously-made decision, not an unconscious “running out” of it. It is a much-less finite resource. That is what makes determination different from many other personal characteristics. When we think of similar attributes of ours such as willpower, intelligence or patience, I think most of us consider them to be finite. We only have so much willpower in a day – that’s why that bowl of ice cream at the end of the evening always seems to get to us. We say “I have run out of patience with that organization”. We can only learn so much before our brains get tired. Or we generally can only get so good at some subjects because of our aptitude.

Determination feels like it may last longer than many other personal attributes

Second, I also like that the quote focuses on the individual – YOUR determination. Moving forward is dependent on you, not external forces. You don’t have to rely on, or wait for, outside sources. Momentum, moving forward, is dependent on YOU. You are in control. You decide how fast things move. You decide when to push – or when it is time to pause and take a breath. That sense of control resonates with me.

When YOU are in control, you have more power

Third, I like that you control the speed. The vision I get is like riding your bike through some rolling hills. You get to modulate your speed based on the inclines facing you. You might need to push harder at some points to get over that rise in the way. When you feel like things are going downhill, you decide how fast you want to go. If the speed is “just right”, you might decide to go with the momentum. Perhaps coasting along, letting the speed and power you built up previously drive you forward for a while makes sense. Speed does not have to mean “breakneck speed”. It means propelling yourself forward at what feels comfortable in the moment.

Speed is something you get to regulate

We are all guilty of saying “I can’t” to things in our lives. Some of those events are probably not important. But some events just need a little impetus, a little encouragement. Perhaps the reminder that you can move forward “at the speed of your determination” will help drive you forward on something you need to do. “Can’t” doesn’t always have to mean “never”.