Your Limits Don’t Matter

by Frost on September 7, 2011

Did you know that you can do ANYTHING you set your mind to?

If you want to play in the NBA, you just need to practice until you’re good enough. If you want to be a world-class chess player, guitarist, pick-up artist, or chef, the same logic applies. Just put in the effort, put in the work, put in the sacrifice, and eventually you will achieve your goals. You might even be able to fly, if only you spend 16 hours a day flapping your arms.

Do I seem a little bit crazy today? Maybe I’ve been reading too many self-improvement blogs. Their consensus seems to be that there are no natural limits on what you can do and achieve in your life. The seduction and self-improvement community even has a name for the idea that there may in fact be an upper limit to what he can do. It’s called a self-limiting belief, and seduction forums are replete with posters decrying anyone who so much as admits their own mortality. Malcolm Gladwell, pop-PC/feel-good author extraordinaire, has decreed that the key to achieving anything is to spend 10,000 hours practicing it.

The reality is that we are not blank slates, waiting to have superhuman skills imprinted on us by practice and repetition. We are stuck with whatever genes we’re born with, and whatever early childhood experiences we’ve had. Intelligence is at least 50% heritable, and few if any skills and abilities that we might wish to acquire are any different.

If you’re short, you’ll never be tall. If you’re only moderately intelligent, you’ll never be a physics professor at MIT. If you’re naturally shy and socially maladroit, you may not ever be able to be the smoothest, suavest pick-up artist in the world.

* * *

So how should we react to the knowledge that not every corner of the world is ours for the taking? Should we be depressed?

Not at all. You already knew everything I just wrote, even if you consciously denied it. Now that we’ve admitted that we have limits, we can make better life decisions by focusing on developing the skills we actually have the potential to master. I suspect that I’d be in a shitty spot in my life right now if I’d bought into the 10,000 hours rule, and decided to override my natural limitations and become an econometrics professor or classical musician. No one has the potential to do anything they want in life, but the majority of us have the potential to do something.

The other piece of good news (for you) is that we are living in what may be the golden age of mediocrity. Our generation is wasting away in front of flickering screens, drinking and smoking itself retarded, spending its formative years getting worthless educations in dumbed-down schools, and approaching life from a timid, cowardly, risk-averse mentality. In all likelihood, the world is full of people smarter, better looking, and more talented than you. But they’ll probably be playing Halo while you’re out conquering the world. Whatever your unrealistic goals are, your competition is so afraid and spiritless that you might actually be able to achieve them with mediocre talent alone, if you’re willing to put in the work.

And even if you don’t, so what? On my deathbed, I’d rather look back at a life of failure than one of shying away from challenge. Given the choice between uncertain success and certain failure, I’ll take the former every time.

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

tenthring September 12, 2011 at 8:57 pm

NomadicNeill,

Did they become the very best? What about all the similar fathers who failed and didn’t get books written about them?

tenthring September 8, 2011 at 2:13 am

One thing I think people need to recognize is you don’t need to be a rock star to enjoy music. Or make a million dollars off a hobby for it to have value. Or make enough off a business to quit your day job. If those pursuits and successful and enjoyable for you its enough.

I have a lot of limitations in life. I’ve got diabetes, asthma, bone deformities, and immune system deficiencies. My lungs only have 50% of the capacity of a normal adult. I don’t come from money. There are a lot of things I will never do on anything close to a high level. But I still enjoy doing them. I play sports and try to improve even though I will never be the best. I’ve tried to do some artistic stuff even though I can’t draw a straight line. I put in effort and do my best and occasionally get results I’m proud of even if they are nothing special amongst 6 billion competitors.

One big boost recently has been weight lifting. With all my problems, and a history of non-results from poorly planned work out regimens, I didn’t think I could get anywhere. A year ago I got very very sick and was in the hospital for a long time. I thought I would die, they couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me. My left arm turned solid black and blue and I couldn’t even move it. I felt like I was having a stroke or something. When I got a small cut I bled everywhere and it wouldn’t stop. I ended up on disability for awhile. When I “recovered” I was even scrawnier then ever. 6 foot 130lb. I could bench a mighty 45lbs twice. Bicep curl a mighty 12lb. And squat a mighty 55lb. Pathetic. I seemed like a couldn’t do anything.

Today, about 3 months later, I’m benching 2x that amount 3 sets of 5. Bicep curling 3x that amount. And squatting a little over 3x that amount. Those totals might make some people laugh, but they mean a lot to me, and they make me feel great. I’ll probably never be anywhere close to the top levels of fitness, and most people will probably always see me as scrawny. But if I can get to the point where I’m benching 1.5x my weight and squatting 2x my weight I’ll be happy and it will have been worth it.

Another big limitation to having so many health problems is that it’s rather impracticable for me to start a business or work for a start up. Nobody will write me health insurance, and with expensive medicines and every other year hospital visits the norm I can’t (and I’m glad a didn’t) take the risk of going without. Sadly, its big organization work for me despite my hating it. Even there, I have a big change coming up. An old coworker became a big cheese in government and asked me to work on healthcare reform. After having my own dreams limited by pre-existing conditions I find the idea of working to change that for my generation, so ambitious young people don’t have to take shitty 9-5 jobs for insurance, quite compelling.

There was no plan for this to happen. No 10,000 hours of concerted practice. I got into my profession because right after leaving wall street (for ethical reasons) my Dad got sick, so I passed some math exams and became an actuary to support the family. Then a coworker at one place I worked went somewhere else, I kept in touch, his superior retired and he got the big chair. So I get this opportunity. If you keep at things you never know what it will work out.

Now its not my dream job. Its the government. There is a cubicle and an office involved. But we’ve talked it over and I’m very excited about it. I could spend all day wondering if I’m 10,000 hours away from being an astronaut playboy millionaire or I could get one with taking a risk on the next logical step in my life.

J.W. Black September 7, 2011 at 9:45 pm

After the first two paragraphs I was going to call your faulty ideas out…luckily my ADD didn’t kick in and I read *the whole* post before commenting.

ancalgon September 7, 2011 at 9:04 pm

Even though you can get good at most things by practicing them for 10,000 hours or whatever, you have 12(hours/day after sleep and other stuff) * 365 days/year * 60 more years (assuming you’re in your twenties) = about 250,000 hours of possible productivity in your life.

I think that once you recognize that fundamental reality, it’s more a question of focusing upon your priorities, and what gives you a healthy and happy life apart from those productive hours. Then go and do that without wavering from it. (unless it happens to be Halo).

Eternity October 7, 2011 at 7:36 am

Surprisingly well-written and ifnrmotaive for a free online article.

halibetlector September 7, 2011 at 5:20 pm

One of the best pieces of advice my father gave me growing up was “You’ll never play Basketball competitively.” Some things do have real physical limitations, like Basketball. If you’re clever, you can get around your limitations and still be useful on the court, but no matter how hard you practice, you’ll always be at a disadvantage to a 6’9″ tall monster.

The real question here shouldn’t be “stick to your genetic strengths”, but rather “Knowing your limitations, is the time and effort you put in worth what you get out of it?” For me, in the case of basketball, it wasn’t. But it was worth it for me to learn how to play the guitar, despite having short, stubby fingers and knowing I’ll never be Clapton.

Frost September 7, 2011 at 5:25 pm

I figured out years ago that I’ll never be a world-class guitar player. But I have a solid campfire/hiphop cover playlist that I have a lot of fun with, and I’m OK with that. Same thing with most sports, I was good enough to play intercollegiate rugby, but never at a higher level than that.

Kara September 7, 2011 at 5:06 pm

The empowerment aspect of the self-help industry which says the ONLY limitations are the ones we place on ourselves is in response to earlier beliefs which basically said the opposite: we’re all victims and we have no control at all. Sometimes the pendulum swings too far in one direction or another, and twenty-somethings may be mainly noticing what currently constitutes common thinking in the self-improvement industry.
That said, I think your call to action to rise above mediocrity and do something meaningful in life is something everyone should do…whether they’re 25, 45 or 65. We can all stand to bust through at least a few of those limiting beliefs!

Frost September 7, 2011 at 5:22 pm

Agreed, and that actually explains why the “You can do ANYTHING” meme has persisted. We live in a world of fearful, timid people, so if you can choose to join the small number of people who actually put themselves on the line, odds are good you really can be among the best at X or Y. In a world of motivated, ambitious people, we wouldn’t be so lucky.

As you may have noticed, the actual advice I offer is the same as an anti-limiting-beliefer would. I would just rather give people good advice for the correct reasons than false ones.

NomadicNeill September 7, 2011 at 2:58 pm

Have you read Outliers?

Because I think you missed the point of the book.

Yes we have different starting points (genes, backgrouncd etc.) but the 10,000 hour rule still applies.

A good book that goes into more depth is ‘Bounce’.

The like of Mozart, Tiger Woods etc. were lucky in that they got thousands of hours worth of practice from a young age. Innate talent has little to do with it (if any at all).

Frost September 7, 2011 at 5:19 pm

I have read Outliers, not Bounce though. I’ll check out some reviews.

Achievement is the interaction of natural ability and practice. My opinion of a guy like Tiger is that he was born with a genetic profile that gave him incredible potential to be a great golfer, and that combined with his grueling early life practice regimen pushed him into the stratosphere. I bet there are a ton of unfortunate kids who aren’t as gifted, whose parents have read outliers and are now driving their kids in whatever skill or talent they’ve chosen under false blank slatist assumptions.

I’m not sure what you think was the point of Gladwell’s book. Seemed to me that he’s suggesting the key factor in becoming an expert at something is the 10k hours. I’m countering that the reality is more nature-centric than that.

NomadicNeill September 8, 2011 at 5:50 am

Yes there are genetic limits in life, I’ve read that it plays a big part in your psychology as well.

But I think you should be careful about placing limits on yourself before you actually hit them.

Sure, if you want to be a basketball player you probably need to be a certain height.

As for Tiger, he may have some minute genetic advantage, maybe his body has good proportions for the sport in the same what that Michael Phelps does for swimming (I think I’m right in saying that Phelps’ arms are longer than his legs).

But in any non-physical skill I don’t see the point in accepting limits before you hit them. Because it may either limit your enjoyment of the process or potentially stop you from trying your very best.

tenthring September 8, 2011 at 9:25 am

It depends what you want to do. Do you want to be very good at something, or do you want to be the best and possibly make a good living off it?

If you want to merely be very good, then yes anyone on the right side of the bell curve can do that. However, if you want to be the best its kind of like sports. Either you’ve got it or you don’t. The difference between the best and not quite the best is infinitesimally small but also impossible to breach if you don’t have the natural ability. If you disagree try studying chess for 10,000 hours and tell me if you become Kasparov.

NomadicNeill September 9, 2011 at 11:33 am

Well read that book I recommended:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Bounce-Myth-Talent-Power-Practice/dp/0007350546

It actually contains an example of a Hungarian man who trained his three daughters in chess from the age of five and they became world-class chess players.

Dirt Man September 7, 2011 at 1:21 pm

“The other piece of good news (for you) is that we are living in what may be the golden age of mediocrity. Our generation is wasting away in front of flickering screens, drinking and smoking itself retarded, spending its formative years getting worthless educations in dumbed-down schools, and approaching life from a timid, cowardly, risk-averse mentality. In all likelihood, the world is full of people smarter, better looking, and more talented than you. But they’ll probably be playing Halo while you’re out conquering the world. Whatever your unrealistic goals are, your competition is so afraid and spiritless that you might actually be able to achieve them with mediocre talent alone, if you’re willing to put in the work.”

This is excellent and I’d say spot on. I like that you are dealing in reality here, it’s refreshing. One of my simple rules (http://taoofdirt.wordpress.com/simple-rules/) is “Don’t Expect Too Much.” Life doesn’t always turn out the way we hope/plan for, but you’re right to go after what it is, and know that you gave it your best, even if you don’t succeed. So many factors have to align for some things to go a certain way that it would be silly for us to be very depressed just because some things don’t work out as we want. We’ll all be a lot happier if we can accept the fact that we have limitations, and yet work within those limitations in a sane, and realistic way.

Great post man.

Frost September 7, 2011 at 5:09 pm

Yeah. It’s funny though, even while a part of me exists that can write this post, I actually spend most of my time 100% convinced that I’ll eventually do everything ridiculous that I’m planning for my life…

Dirt Man September 8, 2011 at 10:54 pm

I can understand that. I think a lot of us have been brought up to think/feel that way, so even when we step outside of that for a while, like to write your post, it’s so easy to step back into the other. I think at this point in my life I’m spending more time in the ‘other’ pond, but I do sometimes drift into thinking/feeling I can do anything. I think it’s good to have dreams, goals and aspirations, but for my part, I’m better off when I focus on things I can actually accomplish, even if I have to stretch myself to do those things. On the other hand, I’m often surprised when I can pull something off I didn’t think I could before. So I guess it’s a mixed bag, all in all.

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