Do You Have a Can-Do or a Can’t-Do Attitude?

I had a teacher back in Middle School who would write the names of famous people on the chalkboard every single day. They were famous for very different reasons, but it didn’t take much to notice that they all had one thing in common: they had all faced tremendous failure before managing to succeed.

I can barely remember that teacher’s name, and I don’t even remember the subject that he taught, but I do remember that list and a few of the people on it.

The list included Abraham Lincoln, who lost many elections for various public positions before he was elected President of the United States. The list also included Thomas Edison, who created thousands of prototypes that didn’t work before he invented the light bulb. There were many others who went on to become a success after failing.

Despite this story being about something entirely unrelated to freelancing, my teacher had a very good point: You often have to fail at something before you can succeed. That truth is just as true today as it was when I attended Middle School.

This message is especially true for freelancers. Your business can’t succeed if you don’t stick with it. It’s up to each of us to decide that we can succeed.

An Illustration of the Can’t-do Attitude

In contrast to the lesson my teacher was trying to get across is the can’t-do attitude expressed by a few freelancers that I have met over the years.

Here’s a typical (fictional) experience of meeting someone with a can’t-do attitude:

As soon as I walked in the room, Jane Doe was quick to let me know how badly things were going for her. At first I felt really sad for Jane, but as I listened to her problems I realized that I knew how a few of them could be overcome (having faced something similar myself).
When the time seemed right, I shared my experience with Jane and explained how I had tackled a similar problem. To my surprise, Jane didn’t seem the least bit interested in solving her problem. That’s when I realized that Jane was the victim of her own can’t-do attitude.

Would my solutions have worked for Jane? Maybe not, but she wasn’t even willing to try them.

A can’t-do attitude can be devastating to a freelancing business, and sometimes we don’t even realize how negative our own attitude has become.

A Can-Do Checklist

Here is a checklist to see if you are a can-do freelancer:

  1. Workarounds. When confronted with a problem a can-do freelancer looks for a work-around. A can’t-do freelancer quits.
  2. Learning. A can-do freelancer is always learning and looking for new ideas. A can’t-do freelancer sticks with what he or she already knows.
  3. Excuses. A can-do freelancer owns his or her mistakes and does better next time. A can’t-do freelancer is full of excuses.
  4. Planning. A can-do freelancer has a Plan A and a Plan B. A can’t-do freelancer doesn’t plan anything.

Of course, this post isn’t meant to point a finger at anyone in particular. It’s likely that all of us have been a can-do freelancer at some points of our freelancing career AND a can’t-do freelancer at other points in that same career.

Rather, I really want this post to be a reminder to everyone of what we can accomplish as freelancers when we have a positive attitude. All of us have incredible potential if we’re willing to work hard and overcome our (inevitable) problems.

What Characteristics Would You Add to the Checklist?

Do you think attitude contributes to freelancing success? Why, or why not?

What characteristics would you add to those of the can-do (or can’t-do) freelancer?

Have you met someone like Jane Doe? What you say to him (or her)?


  1. says

    Oh wow. Can do here, all the way. In fact, so much so that I rise to challenges before I realize what I’m doing (and then sob six months later, “What was I thinking?!”)

    But. I love a challenge and I don’t think there’s anything in this world I can’t do. Except fly. I can’t fly. I embrace being able to say, “I have no idea how to do this, but I’ll find out, learn, and figure out the best way to get it done.” I learn a great deal along the way – and that’s a total high.

    You’re very right that adversity builds strength, and I’ll add that the more we each say, “Yes, I can,” or at least, “I’ll try,” the easier it becomes to keep doing it when we realize we have more power within us to succeed than we believe.

  2. says

    Thanks James!

    I think the willingness to rise to the challenge is a key part of freelancing success, as you point out.

    BTW, I’ve also always wanted to fly, but I can’t do it either (except as a passenger in an airplane, which I’ve done many times).

  3. says

    It sure DOES sound like you’re pointing fingers. MOST problems encountered on a freelance gig is the result of a bad client. Clients need you too! During this bad economy there are a lot of low-life clients looking to take advantage of you. Don’t be bullied, manipulated, over-worked or chiseled down in price! Say no! Quit! If they want more than what was agreed upon, they gotta pay more! Hell, that’s why we freelance, so we don’t have to take that crap. Don’t be a “can do” freelancer, instead, find better clients. Here’s a better article:

    When confronted with a problem a can-do CLIENT looks for a work-around. A can’t-do client dumps the problem on a freelancer.

    A can-do client is always learning and looking for new ideas. A can’t-do client sticks with what he or she already knows.

    A can-do client owns his or her mistakes and does better next time. A can’t-do client is full of excuses.

    A can-do client has a Plan A and a Plan B. A can’t-do client doesn’t plan anything.


  4. says

    Hi David!

    Thanks so much for your comment.

    Actually, we have recently covered problem clients. Check out: and

    There are many other past posts about problem clients at Freelance Folder.

    Today, however, we’re talking about attitude – which is something that every freelancer can control.

  5. says

    Thanks for this! I came across the ‘can’t do’ attitude quite a lot while I was working in large companies. And it’s one reason why I’m trying freelancing now.

    I think it’s good to know where your limits lie with what you do. You can’t do everything for everyone after all. But you can still have a ‘can do’ attitude. If I’m asked to something I haven’t done before, it’s great! An opportunity to learn something new and get paid for it! And I tell the client “I don’t know yet, but I’ll find out”.

  6. says

    Your checklist is helpful not only to freelancers but to anybody who wants to thrive amidst the crunch and get something out life. Your take on the can-do and can’t-do attitude is simple yet insightful.

    Good job!

  7. says

    I totally agree that attitude effects the way we work whether as a freelancer or in my case working within a design company. I think its more acute as a freelancer as you have only yourself to rely on. I like to think of my self as a can-do kind of person and I believe that approaching challenging situations with this attitude is very beneficial.

  8. says

    Set Goals. Goals are so important. Goals are different from dreams in that Dreams never come true and require no effort, but Goals do happen but require hard work and a solid plan.

  9. says

    I remember a friend of mine while reading your post Laura, she has this Can’t-do attitude too. Honestly, it is kind a annoying whenever she says that she can’t do “this or that”, to think that she haven’t tried it at all. As far as I know her, she’s not that negative before, but a bad work experience took away a big portion of her self esteem. I always try to emphasize her potentials as we are both professionals. In fact, I also gone through her experience but I just can’t figure out why she can’t go on with her life.

    Thanks for this post Laura. I might share this to her.

  10. Hagi says

    your checklist is really insightful and it have dawned on me that if you really love what you’re doing, you’ll always be the can-do freelancer. Nothing from the can’t-do list can get in your mind.
    And if you’re finding yourself being the can’t-do freelancer most of the time, just quit it, find another job which you truly love and you’re really good at. Success will only be the matter of time.

  11. says

    This post is awesome. I think a can-do always looks forward while a can’t-do looks in the past. Always thinking about their mistakes and bad times. You’ll never grow if you don’t move forward. This was very insightful. I’ve met a few can’t-dos in my life. It’s almost like they are determined to fail before they even start.

    I think if you go in with that attitude, you will set yourself up for failure. Just by pure self influence. If you think you can, you will, if you think you can’t, you won’t.

    Cool post :)

  12. says

    Sorry, I think this article is ridiculous. Saying “you should be a “can-do” person without putting it into some kind of context is absolutely meaningless. Are you saying people should be positive and not negative? that’s not very insightful.

  13. says

    @db I think the point is that if you always have a negative attitude towards what you do, you won’t succeed. Simply because you undermine yourself. If you think your going to fail then you already have.

    Having a can-do attitude and having confidence in your work will do one of two things. You will take action, whether it’s good or not (and action is much better than nothing). And if you go into it with a positive attitude it will turn out better.

  14. says

    Attitude is the KEY here! May it be CAN DO or CAN’T DO. This can’t be related to the topic above but funny how this came up.

    If we assign numerical value to the Alphabet like A=1 and B=2 and so on….. You will not that HardWork is only 98% while Knowledge is 96% but ATTITUDE is 101%

  15. says

    People are conditioned in society to avoid risk and minimize the chance for failure as much as possible. This all good and well for some things, but can’t be quite hurtful when it comes to working as a freelancer and trying new things. I’m a strong believer in getting out of your comfort zone often and trying new things both in your personal and work lives alike. Failure is a great learning tool and should be treated as such. I really liked the part of your post that noted that teacher who would list all the famous people everyday on the board. Neat idea!

  16. says

    Great comments everyone!

    Steve – I was really fortunate to have some a few foward-thinking teachers who did things like listing famous folks on the board. I think experiences like the one I describe above permanently changed my outlook.

    (Off topic to any teachers out there who happen to read this post, it just goes to show that kids are paying attention, even when you think they might not be. Keep up the good work! You can make a difference.)

  17. says

    I just stumbled onto your site and noticed a common error. Edison did not invent the light bulb… English scientist Humphrey Davy was first, Joseph Swan was second, American inventor Charles Bush invent the carbon arc street lamp.

    Edison was the man who made the light bulb practical… he finally got it to shine for up to 1500 hours. Edison, more than those before him stuck it out and made the light bulb profitable. Others following Edison cleaned up the carbon smoke that settled on the inside of the bulb and dimmed the light output… found new materials and so forth.

    This in no way discounts what you said… just correcting the record.

  18. Kristin says

    I’ve actually encountered the “can’t do” attitude in more non-freelancers. I think freelancers are more likely to think “I’ll do it my way”. I was recently talking to a friend with that attitude about looking for a new job and really it has much to do with self esteem. Sometimes they just need someone to sit them down and say “I KNOW you can do this” before they believe it themselves.

  19. says

    This is spot-on advice!! As solo professionals, our success is directly related to how we handle challenges and adversity…and our attitudes toward those challenges. That’s true to a certain extent when you’re an employee, but you always have your employer as a safety net. When you’re out on your own, it’s ALL up to you!

    I see too many freelancers fail because they gave up too early or got caught up in a challenge that seemed too difficult to overcome. That’s a shame. To go back to the workforce because you didn’t like self-employment is one thing. But to have to go back because you couldn’t bring yourself to get past a thorny obstacle is just plain…sad!

    Great article, Laura!

  20. says

    Hi Ed!

    Thanks so much for backing me up.

    I’ve always found attitude to be a crucial component to just about everything that I do. I believe that my attitude has been responsible for what I’ve accomplished so far.

    Dianna – Thanks for taking the time to set me straight. I do believe that Thomas Edison’s name actually was the one that my teacher wrote on the blackboard – but, of course, that was some time ago.

  21. Shane says

    I like you post, it reminds me of that old joke. Two guys leap out of a plane, one is an optimist, the other a pessimist. Halfway down the optimist says “Well so far so good.” the other guy has a parachute.


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