I Think; I Believe; I Don’t; I Can’t

One of the most famous quotes of all time is:

No! Try not. Do, or do not. There is no try. - Yoda.

It’s funny how little words can mean so much to our ability to be successful.

Over the past ten years, I have spent a lot of time trying to understand how certain words used in certain situations can fundamentally change not only the outcome, but how we view ourselves in terms of that outcome.

Can it be that simple? A simple addition or subtraction of a single word or phrase can be the difference between success and failure?


The words we utter are heard first by us. Whether we think deeply about word selection or blurt them out without an apparent thought, we are the first people to hear – and react – to those words. Our emotional attachment to those words is the basis for their power over our psyche.

I Believe or I Think

I Believe or I Think are the worst two words that a CEO can utter. They, by definition indicate that you are not 100% sure that what you are stating is true. You are giving yourself an out, and therefore are inviting debate as to the validity of your statements. You look weak. You seem unsure. Especially to yourself, which creates an awful cycle.

“I think we should enter the Japanese market.”
“We should enter the Japanese market.”

Which creates a deeper level of trust? Of desire to follow that leader?

Stop using “I think” and “I believe.” It’s amazing the difference you view your communications, and equally important how others view you.

I Don’t vs. I Can’t

For those that follow any of my social media streams, it pretty clear that I am trying to lose weight and get into some semblance of a shape that is not round. I am working with Retrofit, which is an awesome service. One of the professionals I am working with, Stefanie, sends a bunch of links every friday, and a week or so ago, since this link to an LA Times article entitled Cravings can be defeated with two little words. The basic premise of the story is that using the words “I don’t” vs “I can’t” is a positive way to not eat things you shouldn’t.

“With ‘I don’t’ you’re choosing words that signal empowerment and determination rather than ones that signal deprivation,” says Vanessa Patrick, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Houston. In four studies, Patrick and her colleagues examined how “empowered refusal” can increase feelings of control and self-awareness, especially with food. They found that when it came to deciding whether to eat certain foods, saying “I don’t” was nearly three times as effective as saying “no” and about eight times more effective than saying “I can’t.” The research was published in March’s Journal of Consumer Research.

I thought back to when I decided to get sober. The Don’t vs. Can’t dynamic was alive and well through that process. I can drink, I can do drugs, I just decided that I don’t do them. It creates a world where its my choice to not participate, not some arbitrary limiter.

It seems to be the same with product design and development. It’s not about what you can’t do, after all, its technology, you can do anything. It’s about what you don’t do.

Ponder that for a moment. Building a successful product, or company, is about defining what you don’t do rather than what you should/could do.

Twitter doesn’t do long-form blogging; Instagram doesn’t do video; and the list goes on. Products defined by what you don’t do create a unique relationship between your users and company. Your users get used to being told what the product doesn’t do; and more so, see those choices as positives for the company and its direction. So much so, that the don'ts become the reason for why they are loyal to your company.

The same comes with pitching your company to investors. By explaining what your company is not, you help to define what it is. The most difficult hurdle to overcome, especially in a pivot, is the common belief (there is that word again), that your company is one thing, but in reality it is something much different.

I believe/I think. Words that can easily destroy any goodwill you as a leader has built around your choices and direction.

I don’t vs. I can’t. Words that can easily define your product or business through ‘empowered refusal’ (which drives a much clearer vision), rather than a desire to show your capabilities to impress.

Little words. Big meanings.


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