Brad Keywell

Beware of the Apostrophe Ts

I’ve been in the groove of a morning habit.

For a few minutes when I wake up, I try to just sit in bed and think. Not that long — but enough time to give some consciousness to my unconsciousness (a/k/a my dreams) and see what comes to mind as I greet the new day.

One of the first mornings practicing the habit, something came to mind that I immediately wrote down: “beware the Ts — ask why.”

The apostrophe Ts I refer to include: can’t, won’t, shouldn’t, don’t, couldn’t, among others. It’s one way we allow our pessimism to undermine us and those around us by stopping short of spelling out our commitments to negation. I’ve since learned that linguists call this elision, which is the omission of sounds when joining together different syllables in a word or phrase.

“I can not” → “I can’t”
“I should not” → “I shouldn’t”
“I will not” → “I won’t”

The stress on not is quieted down when we use contractions. What we are left with is an expression of what is not possible that rolls off the tongue. Our language no longer emphasizes the word not, which provides the mindful listener ammunition to probe into a definitive statement. “I can’t” attracts less notice and enables fear and rejection to take hold as unassuming stances on new opportunities. These pronunciations aren’t entirely innocent.

I wrote “beware the apostrophe Ts” and later looked up the definition of “beware.” I think the word articulates my point: “be cautious and alert to dangers.” Cautious. Alert. Be cautious and alert and to the dangers of fear and reactive negativity, which apostrophe Ts (and the society that uses them) sneak around while signaling to everyone as if they were the same. They are not.

So how did apostrophe Ts figure into my thinking? The night before, I had been listening to Phil Knight’s memoir Shoe Dog in which he says something so powerful that I stopped the tape and wrote it down: “what made me so successful is that I have an outsized sense of possibility and a diminished sense of pessimism.” And then, earlier that same day, I received a card from my friend with the only text being a Churchill quote: “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimism sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” 

With all of the apostrophe Ts in our midst, and Knight and Churchill’s thinking on pessimism buzzing inside my head, I had a simple follow up — “Why?” Why can’t you do it? Why can’t you try it? Why shouldn’t we test it? Why won’t it work?

The apostrophe-T may be valid and factually accurate, and it may be a rational response to an infeasible idea. Asking “why” allows the entire group to hear the logic of why the ‘t is valid (and maybe even better, if validly contracted) and helps us all understand decisions that get made. In other cases, asking “why” will force the person who uses the ‘t to address the underlying issue — that personal bias, fear, or negativity (even if temporary) has reared its ugly head in the midst of the rationality which teams depend on.

Now, I don’t have much investment in grammatical or linguistic discussions (and I won’t stop using apostrophe Ts), but it’s telling that our pronunciations of meaning make the world that is sounded aloud seem like others aren’t possible.

We all come from previous experiences that have created “Experience Glasses” that we often don’t notice we’re wearing. Your Experience Glasses can be your comfort zone or sense of what’s normal, forcing unconscious judgment upon experiences that don’t look familiar when seen through the filter of your glasses.

There are many versions of this — I’ll offer one for illustration. You may have worked for a company where your responsibilities were well-defined and measured in terms of years, with little modifications to teams and duties during a year. To you, the iterations and adjustments of another role may cause you to turn negative, or to be fearful (and read stories from the iterations  — stories that are negative rather than the story of possibility and growth). To you, I say — beware the Ts!

What is the behavior that I’m defining as essential for thinking through the possibilities of an opportunity?

Rational discourse. Clear and purposeful messaging. Open and honest discussions. Persistent questioning.

They give us a survey of opportunities that apostrophe Ts may hide as givens. Innovation thrives on informed decision-making, with the designated decision-maker having cogently assembled facts and seeing through the assumptions (contractions in reasoning) made to best get from A to B as rapidly and accurately as possible.

And, in the spirit of being vigilant in the awareness of apostrophe Ts, discussion and rational decision-making are most vibrant when you are on the lookout for unreasonable negativity and the fear-based bias of “Experience Glasses.” Better possibilities emerge when we all speak up to ask “why” when we hear an apostrophe T that warrants pushback, including looking ourselves in the mirror if we are the one to use the apostrophe T that, in fact, is motivated by something other than facts and logic.

Or, as Coach Wooden said: “It’s the little details that are vital. Little things make big things happen.” The Apostrophe Ts are just one among many other little things.   

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© Brad Keywell 2021