Make 'Can't Never Could' Your Agency's Motto

Don't Talk Yourself Out of Success

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Bart Cleveland
Bart Cleveland
I think every teacher I had from kindergarten through high school used the tired idiom "can't never could" to challenge my fellow students and me. Old fogies are so tiresome, I thought as I rolled my eyes. God bless them for ignoring my indignation and continuing the chant: "Can't never could, can't never could."

When I went to college, I had a couple of teachers who also helped me purge the habit of talking myself out of success. My respect for them was so deep that I dared not fail from a lack of effort. After working harder and longer than I thought was humanly possible an odd thing happened to me: My assignment was judged as being the best in the class. This had a profound effect on my attitude toward my work. Until then, any competition I had participated in resulted in me coming in second or third or worse. To best classmates with talent that exceeded mine took hard work. I realized that the old adage that genius is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration was true. From that day forward I decided I would never use the excuse that I couldn't do something. I came to believe that if I really gave it everything I had, I could. I think this is why after decades of doing ads; I still love it as much as I ever did.

When I was creative director at Sawyer Riley Compton, an ad agency in Atlanta, I was given a reminder that this no-quit philosophy will always be the secret to success. We were doing well and some of our people were going on to agencies that we admired most. I kept in touch with many and they shared some advice. One person's anecdote to their new agency's amazing work had a familiar ring: "can't never could."

She didn't say it in those exact words, she actually said, "When it comes to the work, there is no such thing as the word, 'no.'" She demonstrated her statement by relating a story about her first assignment as a media buyer. After working non-stop for a week, she failed to make it happen. According to her, the reason she failed was that the assignment had never been done before and she couldn't find a vendor that would do it. When she reported this to her boss, the woman quietly closed the door and explained to my friend that at this agency, failure was not an option. Can't never could.

Guess what happened? She went back and succeeded. Now imagine how this person felt after she completed that task. Would she be afraid of her next challenge, or would she believe she could literally turn the world upside down? Think how powerful your agency could be if people were empowered to do the impossible? By empowered, I mean required. Imagine if there was never a meeting where you heard the phrase, "We can't do that because..." If "can't never could" was your mantra, how much better would your chance for success be?

I'm not living in some utopian fog. Workplaces like this exist. Sometimes they make computers and cell phones. Sometimes they are ad agencies. But regardless of what they do, if they believe "can't never could," they change their industry and many times the world.

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