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“Does Success come in CANS?”

I believe the most difficult championship to win in professional sport is the first one, because even professional players must first believe that they CAN achieve the championship, before they CAN actually accomplish this success. And this principle, in fact, applies to most of life.

It has been said that life is the opposite of school, because most of the time life gives you the test first and the lesson later. I am a good example of this… I was an NHL Captain at 22 years old and earned my Masters Degree in Leadership/Business at the age of 45.

I have recently been focusing on the power of language and the influence that words have on changing the direction of team culture. As leaders listen in to the language of their culture, not only can they better identify the culture’s current state (mindset), but with this awareness, leaders have a better opportunity to adjust or shift the direction and energy of their teams. The language of CANS and CAN’TS reveal and initiate very different directional mindsets with correspondingly opposite energies.

Think about the negativity of the CAN’T statements we may encounter:

  • “That CAN’T work.”

  • “I CAN’T do it.”

  • “You CAN’T play pro hockey.”

  • “That CAN’T be possible.”

  • “You CAN’T ever be a leader.”

Experts have found that by the time the average teenager has reached his or her 18th birthday, he or she has heard “no” or “YOU CAN’T” approximately 148,000 times. The irony of course is that we parents then ask these same teens to take initiative, be confident and believe in themselves, and then we are surprised at their hesitation, inaction, and self-doubt.

Now, think about the positivity of the CAN statements.

  • “You CAN do that.”

  • “I CAN make this happen.”

  • “We CAN win this shift.”

  • We CAN keep moving forward.”

  • “I know that you CAN be amazing!”

Choose more “I CAN” Language

From teenagers, to professional hockey players, to professionals in business, developing a consistent awareness of the energy of language is critical to leading culture. Shifting away from the CAN’T and increasing the CAN is foundational for energizing and sustaining what we call the team’s Future Positive Direction, found in our Thinking Tendencies Model©. “I CAN’T …” reveals a Future Negative frame that moves us emotionally into the Defensive Zone and often washes us with fearful or anxious thoughts. “I CAN …” activates the Future Positive mindset that delivers energy in a forward direction towards our desired outcomes.

Positive Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson examined 60 different companies, with revenues ranging from very good to average, to struggling. Her team recorded, transcribed and codified the words, sentences and inflections heard at each of these company’s management meetings, and identified whether they leaned towards positivity or negativity.

Frederickson found that the companies whose sentences and conversations had more than 2.91 positive words for every 1 negative word, were also the companies who generated the highest, most flourishing revenue. Conversely, companies that consistently fell below 2.91 positive words for every 1 negative word in their conversations generated average, or poor revenue. (Flourish, Martin Seligman)

Choose “I CAN” Action

After several years of trying to persuade grocers to carry his new brand of popcorn called Red Bow, the creator was deeply discouraged. "Was I, at the age of 63, pursuing a foolish dream?" he wondered as he drove gloomily back to his Valparaiso, Indiana office. Were his many years of researching, cultivating, and perfecting a new, better popping corn leading him to a marketing dead-end?

A Chicago marketing firm recommended the product be marketed as Orville Redenbacher's Gourmet Popping Corn, featuring Redenbacher’s picture on the label. Still uncertain about their advice, Redenbacher decided to test-market their idea. He approached the largest retailer in the Midwest, Marshall Field's Department Store in Chicago. After learning the name of the manager of their seventh-floor gourmet food department, Redenbacher sent him a case of the newly labeled product to his home. Redenbacher did not enclose a note or return address. A month later he phoned asking, "Did you like it?"

"Like it?" the manager responded. "We want to stock it!"

Today Orville Redenbacher's product is the bestselling popcorn in the world. However, his success began as he was reaching the age when most people think about retiring. Although he could be called a late bloomer, Orville Redenbacher and many others like him are living proof that it's never too late to believe that we CAN and take "I CAN" action. Partial Reference

Choose “I CAN” Thinking

Experts tell us that we generate between 15,000 and 66,000 thoughts per day and that 95% of these thoughts are the same thoughts that we had yesterday. Habitual I CAN’T thinking begins unconsciously, often during times when we are not paying attention.

It is now known that the way we interpret events or circumstances can directly affect our outcomes. Whether we perceive external circumstance to be a threat (Future Negative – through the CAN’T frame) or a challenge (Future Positive – the CAN frame), vastly changes our energy, and often our results.

There are a myriad of choices for us to make as we journey through life. The important thing is that we are intentional and self-directed in our choices and focus on the things we CAN and want to do. In the words of Viktor Frankl: “The last of the human freedoms: to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance, to choose one’s own way.”

WIN the “I CAN” Mind-Game

Positivity vs. negativity is readily apparent in outward conversations, but perhaps even more important are the conversations that take place in what we like to call our INNER Game. Our Thinking Tendencies Model (above) is a visual to help us better understand how we are driving our own inner voice. I have wrestled many times between “I CAN’T” and “I CAN.” The NHL playoffs that many of you are watching right now are such a good example of the power of our Inner Voices.

During my 9 seasons with the Montreal Canadiens our team never missed the post-season, but we didn’t win the Stanley Cup every season either. I vividly remember the mental struggle introduced by the negative voice in my head when our team found itself down 3 games to 1 (during a best of 7 series) against our opponent. If you follow sports, you know that coming back from a 3 games-to-1 deficit is nearly impossible. So, when I allowed it, where do you think my mind would drift?

  • “Personally, you’ve had a pretty good season, and that won’t change if you lose this next game.”

  • “The weather is starting to get nice; you need some time to rest and heal those nagging injuries.”

  • “The odds of winning the series are not in our favour.”

We like to say to our clients that we have two choices during our journey towards winning:

1- We allow our minds to DRIFT


2- We choose to SHIFT

Everyone has negative thoughts (courtesy of our negative bias), but not everyone has to accept them. During the playoffs, when those thoughts inevitably arose, I would choose to toughen my resolve and shift the focus of my mind on to more “I CAN” language. Full disclosure: “I CAN” language doesn’t guarantee that you will win… but it does keeps you in the game.

I look back on many life and career defining moments when I was faced with similar choices. One of these moments came when I was 16 yeas old and playing in the playoffs for the Kamloops Chiefs of the Western Hockey League. While I was driving the puck around a Victoria Cougar defenseman, and heading towards the net on a breakaway, the defenseman swung his stick in desperation and took out my skates, flinging me hard into the opposition net. The problem with this scenario was the way that goal posts were cemented into concrete, under the ice, in the old days. Obviously, the posts didn't move (the game grew up and now the posts aren't solid), so my knee moved, and in a very ugly, damaging way.

After many hours of surgery, both Dr. Poulsen and Dr. Smillie believed that the damage to my knee was significant reason to worry about my future playing hockey, and they told my parents as much. But I had a dream and loved the game of hockey. This busted knee was only a speed bump on the way, and not a road block. Looking back on this defining moment of my career, I am thankful that I didn’t allow my thinking to drift. I share this story first to thank both doctors, and secondly to highlight that the words we decide to accept end up defining our lives.

Applying “I CAN” instead of “I CAN’T” language (I could have chosen to believe the doctors words), and enduring countless hours of hard rehabilitation, enabled me to move forward, and, with a knee brace, skate 15 NHL seasons and 1003 NHL games as a player.

George Bernard Shaw said, “People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are. I do not believe in circumstance. The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and if they cannot find them, make them.”

If Success does start in “CANS,” how will you adjust your language today?


Ryan Walter was a 15 season NHL player, has a Masters Degree in Leadership/Business and now speaks/trains professionally, helping corporations and organizations use language to SHIFT their LEADERSHIP, CULTURE, and TEAMS.

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