In a book on communication styles that I read some years ago, the author made a big deal about the difference between two small words:
He said that if you want to get a sense of what’s possible, you use “can”. And if you want to get some action, you use “will”.
You might ask, “Can you please pick up your socks?”
And since you’re really just checking on the possibility that something might happen at some point or other at a time indetermined, the dirty sock party might reasonably answer, “I certainly can“.
But that don’t mean he’s gonna.
Don’t get mad – he’s being honest. You asked if he has the ability to do it, and yes he does, thank you very much for checking.
Once I read that little can/will gem of wisdom, I began to shift my own language to use Will more often.
“Will you pick up your socks?” followed by the most excellent second question: “When will you pick up your socks?” Thus endeth the Sock Drama at my home.
In the process of being conscious about what I was really asking, I learned that there’s a lot of stuff people can do, but only so much they will do.
In our professional lives, we get all webbed up between can and will. I see this most frequently with people who are desperately unhappy in their jobs. They can get a new job, but will they?
Sometimes they hang on to can for a long time because dreamy possibility is much safer than purposeful action.
And, as my friend Martha says, some of us have a very, very long runway. We have to rev up, rumble and run through a lot of can before we get to will, and take off.
Back in 2005, Fast Company magazine published a classic article called “Change Or Die” by Alan Deutschman which explored personal motivation. Deutschman mentions a study of heart bypass patients – within two years of their surgery, 90% of patients had made no changes to the unhealthy lifestyles that had originally led to their surgery.
That’s a long runway, baby.
Investigating the why, researchers found that doctors mostly used fear of dying and further illness to motivate patients to change their behaviors – “Do what I tell you, or you will die.”
Well, yes, I can do what you say, doctor, but will I? No, because I’m already overweight and sluggish and unhappy, and recovery from surgery was a mess… you want me to deny myself food I like, and exercise (which I don’t like) just to extend this crappy life?
But when doctors began saying to patients, “If you make these changes, you’ll be able to play with your grandchildren. You’ll be able to finally go to Disney World. You’ll go back to swing dancing with your wife. You’ll be able to have sex again.” Those things motivate. Those things? You will do.
Visualizing a happier future is perfect who are in jobs they’re not suited to. Focus on what you will be able to do when you’re out of your toxic soup of a job, and you’ll get yourself into something a whole lot better.
Oh, I know what you’re thinking. The devil I know is much better than the devil I don’t. How do I know, for sure, that a new job would be any better?
Honey, you’ll never know for sure, unless you try.
And, you have to know your own runway. Long or short, as you’re rumbling down the tarmac ask a lot of questions about office culture, and expectations, and listen real well – to your heart as well as your head.
Possibilities plus action. Can plus will.
Next thing you know, you’re flying.