Sunday, July 19, 2009

A Man's Got To Know His Limitations

One of my favorite Dirty Harry (Clint Eastwood) lines is from the 1973 movie Magnum Force. At the end of the movie, just after Harry has dispatched the last bad guy, he says, "A man's got to know his limitations."

I love this quote because we typically have no clue as to our limitations. We tend to anchor our beliefs in one of two extremes: there's very little I can do or I can do anything! Both beliefs tend to be equally errant. Many people in the process of "self-improvement" vacillate between the two.

I Know My Limits
The practical people among us might say, "Wait, I know my limits!"

But I would suggest that they don't. For example, many of us believe that we can't do certain things because we weren't born with talent. I run into this all the time when I'm out playing music.

People will come up to me and say, "I wish I could play piano like that!"

I'll ask them, "Then why don't you?"

Nine times out of ten, the answer is, "I just don't have the talent for it".

They know their limits in playing piano and their limits are defined by talent.

Talent is an Illusion
The thing about talent as a limitation that is so silly is that talent isn't actually a limit at all; it's simply a starting point. Each of us comes configured with certain options when we're born. Some of us come with do-complex-math-in-my-head option. Others come with the run-really-fast option. Some have the eat-anything-and-stay-skinny option. And still others come with the play-whatever-I-hear option.

If you take on a new task that matches your option package, you'll be credited with talent. And if not, you can either give up or you can accept the fact that you're simply going to have to work a little harder and a little longer to accomplish the new task.

In either case, talent is simply a starting point. What matters over time is how you translate talent into skill. That's simply a matter of practice and paying attention.

For example, lately Iris has been learning to play drums. She was born with the i-have-no-rhythm-unless-it's-oom-pah-pah-music option. Nonetheless, she's been playing and playing and playing and really paying attention to her process and how it works. The other day she was playing with our band, and she totally found the pocket. You'd swear she had a gift for drumming.

I can give you countless examples of hard-work, persistence and awareness leading to strong skills in areas where people had no talent.

I Can Do Anything!
The kind of foo-foo alternative to I don't have the talent for it is, I can do anything!

While this attitude can provide us a wonderful experience, unless we ground it in terms that are clear and specific, it tends to be short lived.

Quite frequently, the I can do anything perspective is simply a reaction to a previous sense of I can't do anything. It's moving away from the old you to the new you.

Over the years, I've met many people who, in the midst of a personal-development program, declare their new-found empowerment or breakthrough with a bold statement of intention.

You know, after all these years I'm finally going to: ...start my own company! the world! ...leave my relationship. ...write the great American novel! ...learn to paint! ...lose all that weight!

When we get together a year later, nothing has changed (baring metaphors of feet and rivers). After another week of self-improvement, the bold statements and beliefs have returned. I know some people for whom this cycle has recurred for years, even decades.

This cycle of declare-fail-repeat is another example of not knowing our limitations. I don't meant to say that, we can't accomplish what we've set out to do. I mean that the I can do anything attitude alone is ephemeral, lacking clarity, specificity and depth. It's not sustainable and doesn't sustain us.

Knowing Your Limitations
Knowing your limits is the key to accomplishing anything. If there's something in your life that you really want, then a great first step is to make a clear and in-depth assessment of your limitations. As you uncover them, recognize that your limitations aren't the walls that will stop you from achieving your goals. Instead, they're the stepping stones across the river.

For example, if you want to start a business, but can't do math. Decide that you really, really love and want to learn math. Then break down the math limitation into specific limits, e.g., I can't do arithmetic... or I can't do algebra... or I can't do story problems. Divide and conquer!

I believe that by intimately knowing and addressing our limits, we truly can accomplish anything!

So, what's something you've always wanted to do but can't? What are the limits that keep you from doing it?


  1. Right on....Know the limits one has chosen to put upon oneself, know that they are merely self imposed...

  2. Know your limitations and don't waste time fantasizing about something that you simply can't do .
    Figure out what abilities you have and stick with those and improve on those

    1. I think this right crucial. I've seen many a man lose everything because he didn't calculate he cost, AND made assumptions about his limitations.


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