Conquering My Cannots, What I Learned

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What are cannots?

I define cannots in three ways

  1. The things I should be doing (or would love to be doing) but have consciously or unconsciously convinced myself that I am not made for them or I will never be good at them.
  2. The limiting beliefs I have held for a long time and succeeded to make them a part of my identity.
  3. Some of the qualities I admire in other people but have considered them out of reach.

Some of my cannots have been: “I am terrible at writing,” “I can’t perform well in courses or fields involving a lot of reading and writing,” “I am terrible at articulating my thoughts”, “I am not good at remembering people’s names”, “I have a poor sense of direction, I just don’t remember places.” I carried these beliefs like a “batch of honor” and became very anxious when I had to face any of them. In this article, I will talk about some causes of my cannots and strategies I am using to weaken them.

Action 1: Before moving on, please take a moment to think and write down 3 of your cannots.

What are the sources of cannots?

  1. Failing

The only red ink (failed mark) I had at the end of my second year in secondary school was in English Language. The next low mark was in English Literature. This is the year I had a subconscious deciding moment — “I am not good at anything relating to English”. I developed a hatred for English and Literature which extended to anything involving reading and writing like reports, essays, articles, books, directed writing, and all their likes. I remember feeling heartburn each time I picked up my English or Literature book and this made me procrastinate till the last moment. This limiting mindset became part of my identity and stuck with me all through undergraduate and postgraduate studies and even when I started working. Writing emails gave me similar heartburn. This was deeply ingrained in my identity that I never thought about an alternative.

2. Failure to try or Fear of failing

I joined a football club in Kenya and we did training four times a week. The sessions ended with stretching and I could not touch my toes every time we got to that drill. My mind was stuck in a belief — “you have never been able to touch your toes since childhood, why bother much?”. After reading David Goggins’ book “Can’t hurt me,” he explained how running ultramarathons without appropriate stretching had caused his muscles to become compact leading to a loss in height. I didn’t want to lose height so I committed to stretching every single day. It was very painful at the beginning, I didn’t think I could perspire from simple stretching. Within two weeks of continuous stretching, I was touching my toes. This blew my mind, like “did I just use two weeks to break a belief I have held for a lifetime?” Now, I can go beyond my toes when I consistently stretch. Also, I had built the “stiff self” into my identity and never thought about an alternative.

When you start conquering your cannots, you ponder why on earth you had the cannots in the first place. Clasence Neba Shu

3. Parents/Teachers

We are born with almost no data in our brains and have to learn everything from our environment. The first people we look up to are our parents and eventually our teachers. Most of our unconscious cannots are implanted at this stage by parents and teachers without knowing. When a child fails to do something, he/she is labeled “you fool,” “you idiot,” ”you are stupid,” and you can name the rest. Teachers are excellent at labeling students when they fail an exam or don’t answer a question in class. At some point, children start believing these labels and eventually develop a subconscious belief that no amount of work can get them out of the hole. These labels stick with the students during exams and for the rest of their life.

Action 2: Take some time to trace the sources of the three cannots you listed above.

How to overcome cannots.

  1. Discover your cannots and trace their source.

We can’t solve problems without knowing they exist in the first place. Most cannots exist in the subconscious, so we don’t really see them as problems we can solve. Identifying cannots and their source is an important step to eliminating them. I traced my hatred of English literature and writing to my second year in secondary school. From there, I started looking at the cause by asking myself questions. Was it the strategy? Was it a bad teacher? Was it a lack of preparation? Was it a lack of skill? I found out I never even spoke English unless when called to speak in class (which rarely happened). I spoke our vernacular at home and Pidgin English every other time. I never read any books or articles, I didn’t write anything except it was related to school. I spent most of my time solving maths and that translated to a better score in maths. I decided to try a new approach of reading articles, books, listening to talks, writing medium articles. This was a tough task but I was very tired of getting heartburn at the thought of reading or writing. Reading has become a habit and surprisingly fun for me, I now read every single day. I still fight with writing but working on it.

2. Ask the right questions.

He who asks questions, cannot avoid the answers. Cameroon proverb

I usually didn’t ask questions and when I did, I asked disempowering questions — “Can I ever be good at writing?”, “Will I ever be able to speak to a crowd like that?”, “Can I ever be that articulate?”, “Will I ever be able to finish reading a book?”, “Can I ever enjoy writing?”. The answers fueled my fear and my hate and kept me trapped in cannots. When I started asking more empowering questions, my perspective shifted to seeing cannots as work in progress. Questions like “How do I become a consistent reader”, “How do I become good at writing”. “How do I eliminate the fear of public speaking?”, “How can I address a big crowd without panicking?” “How do I beat the guy who has been beating me during my tennis games?” Attempting to answer these questions gave me hope.

3. Mindset

Mindset is the greatest hindrance to overcoming cannots because most cannots are unconscious beliefs. I found a lot of evidence to support my limiting beliefs like the failed test, the terrible speeches I gave, the embarrassing debate I did, and many others. When I started asking the right questions, my mindset began to shift to see evidence in a positive direction. Acknowledging cannots as beliefs that can be changed is a great step to defeating them.

4. Start small

Cannots are usually seen as high and steep mountains that are impossible to get to the top. I found that thinking about the top of the mountain hindered me from trying. I started putting an effort to keep the target at the very far back of the mind and starting with minute steps towards the target. This is a point I have echoed in several of my articles. I started with very small goals — read five pages of a book a day, write a few lines of a medium article a day, walk to the market in the morning, meditate for three minutes in the morning, and so forth. Some of the concepts I have used to help build habits around my cannots include habit stacking, reward system, and accountability partners.

Habit stacking is placing a new habit just after a habit that is already consistent, for instance brushing the teeth, praying, reading, or anything which is consistent. I place the new habit immediately after the consistent one. when it becomes part of my unconscious behavior, I place another one, choosing consistency over perfection every time.

The concept of a reward system is to build a way to reward myself when I accomplish something. I usually put ticks to my plan when I accomplish it and I find them very satisfying. I also set rewards like buying something I wanted if I accomplish a goal. I try to be creative with my reward, just making sure any rewards do not cripple my performance.

An accountability partner can be a friend or a group working towards a similar goal. The idea is to set goals and give regular updates to your accountability partner or group. If you say it to a team or on social media, you are pushing yourself to commit because you want to have integrity. It gets better when you have to report progress every day. My reading habit became consistent thanks to a reading group created by my good friend Beltus Nkwawir, encouraging me to read and give daily updates.


In this article, we have covered some of my cannots, the causes, and some strategies I have used to overcome them. For the most part, cannots do not make any intellectual or logical sense but are rooted in our subconscious mind, controlling several aspects of our life. Fighting them unlocks potentials that have been locked away for a lifetime, giving an incredible feeling of freedom. At the time of writing this article, I am reading my 31st book in less than two years and this is my 6th medium article. I fight hard not to hold any regrets but focus the energy on conquering my stack of cannots. Hope you can do the same.




Software Engineer, aspiring Writer and Entrepreneur.

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Clasence Neba Shu

Clasence Neba Shu

Software Engineer, aspiring Writer and Entrepreneur.

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