Your Physical and Mental Limits Are an Illusion


Caution Tape

If I asked you to tell me where your physical and mental limits are, would you be able to? How would you know they’re there? These aren’t easy questions to answer.

But still many people go through their lives with the assumption that those limits are there. We tell ourselves that we can’t do something because of some limitation we imagine and come up with ways to justify these self induced restrictions. But the limitations you think you see are actually an illusion. And I’ll prove it to you.

Mental Limitation

One early morning in 1939 on the campus of University of California-Berkley, George Dantzig, a graduate student, was running late for class. Arriving in his math class, he saw two statistics problems written on the board. Thinking it was part of his homework, he wrote them down, worked on them over the weekend and handed in his answers.

Six weeks later his professor excitedly informed him that those two problems were the two most famous unsolved problems in statistics – and he had just solved them.

You may have heard this story before and possibly you shrugged it off as an urban legend. But this story actually happened.

To him, the problems weren’t some huge impossible undertaking. He didn’t frame the difficulty through limitations, but possibilities. He never saw them as intimidating monolithic math problems, but as questions with answers he could solve. So he solved them.

Physical Limitation

October 14th, 2012, was a groundbreaking day for Felix Baumgartner. Not only did he set the altitude record for a manned balloon flight, but also set the record for highest altitude parachute jump and greatest free fall velocity.

And because of this jump, Felix also became the first person to break the sound barrier without a vehicle.

Felix didn’t stop from attempting something simply because no one had physically done it before. He didn’t see it as impossible. What he did was set a goal, train hard to reach it and then made it happen.

This feat was a huge undertaking. He had to break four records in order to achieve it. If Felix hadn’t already done it, I think most people would consider this task physically impossible.

The Illusion

Of course, these two examples are extreme ways people have broken through mental and physical limitations. Yet they contain lessons useful for everyday common limitations people set for themselves.

When I was in college, I never thought I’d be able to learn anything in my advanced algebra class. All those equations looked so complex and intimidating. I just assumed I didn’t have the mental capacity to put all those numbers and letters together in a meaningful way. My goal for the class was to get a C.

But to my surprise the equations became easier and easier to understand. So I did better in the class than I ever expected. As I look back, I can see I put a mental limit on what I thought my math abilities were. In reality, I was selling my abilities short.

The thing is that my mental limit seemed so real. I could swear it was right there beating down on me and preventing me from learning. But the truth was that the limit I so realistically imagined was nothing but an illusion.

Breaking Through Limits

This struggle happens much more often than you might realize. How often have you stopped yourself from trying something because you imagined it to be beyond your capabilities? Have you ever thought something was too mentally or physically challenging for you to handle so you didn’t even try?

The major difference between my experience in school and an experience out in the real world is that I was forced to confront my limitation head on. In the real world, there is no requirement.

Since I was required to take that class, I eventually could see that limitation for exactly what it was: an illusion. But if I never had that requirement, I would never have seen the illusion behind the limitation. In the real world, these limitations seem equally real. And no one is going to make you push through them.

But there are ways to see if those limits are really there.

Ask yourself these questions:

• Have I ever pushed myself so far that I couldn’t go any further?
• Is there absolutely no other way to get more out of myself?
• Have I actually met my limits? Really?
• Could I be selling my abilities short?

If you haven’t actually pushed yourself so far, so fast that you completely understand your limits, you truly don’t know where those limits are. Your physical and mental limits are an illusion simply because you’ve never actually seen them.

You just think they are real.

Until you test your physical and mental limits, you’ll never know how far you can take yourself. It will be just like how I was walking into algebra class. You might be blinded to your true capabilities. Make it a regular habit to test how far you can take yourself. Otherwise you might not be living up to your true potential.
photo credit: Picture Perfect Pose

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  1. Ahhh…limits. I can’t seems to such a popular statement these days. Truth is, I hate to hear it…especially from my own lips.
    In the case of the math problem, it was to his benefit to miss the introduction to those problems. If we don’t know it’s impossible, then we are more apt to achieve.

    I took personal training sessions for over a year. Simply because I knew I would never push myself as hard as someone else would. I even surprised my trainer at what I was able to accomplish.

    If only there was a magic word/pill to bypass the negative thinking tied to goals…and just saw them as possibilities…instead of impossibilities.

    • Hey Dawn,

      Yeah, I think it was beneficial to him to miss the introduction to those math problems. That way he could approach them as regular problems to solve instead of these incredible obstacles he shouldn’t have been able to overcome. It makes me wonder how much approach matters to things like that. If we thought less things were impossible, would we achieve more? That’s a hard question to answer.

      I think it does help to think it terms of possibilities instead of impossibilities. That might not be a magic pill, but it could be as close as you’re going to get.

  2. Great post. Many, many years ago (in a galaxy far, far away – the 70’s), when I was learning to troubleshoot Operating Systems for Supercomputers, my bosses sent me on a manufacturer’s course. There, during two weeks, we were given a series of problems to solve. These consisted of boxes of memory dumps (the whole content of a computer’s memory when something failed – took up over 500 sheets of pijama paper each). These particular problems had been pored over by experts world-wide and were considered unsolvable, although no-one had told us this at the time.

    We were set loose on these, more as a learning exercise than anything else. A couple of hours in, I called the guy teaching the course over and said that the problem lay in a particular line of code. He looked at me, said I was wrong, and started to leave. I insisted; I’m stubborn like that, and he relented and started to follow my reasoning. After an hour, he picked up the stack of paper and gave me another, without saying anything. Nothing more was said about this for the rest of the course.

    I returned back to my office and learnt from the head of the department that I had solved an unsolvable. I had instantly acquired a reputation world-wide in that manufacturer (Burroughs).

    I often wonder if, had someone said they were unsolvable, would I have found the bug? I think that maybe we are often conditioned by HOW things are presented to us, as much as what is presented itself.

    Any thoughts?

    • Eric, what a great story. I can only imagine what that teacher thought after you came up with the solution to this “unsolvable” problem. That’s incredible that you looked at these sheets of paper experts had pored over and could come up with the solution like that. There’s a lot of parallels between your story and the unsolvable math problems above.

      So would you have found the bug if someone said the problems was unsolvable? That’s a really good question. There’s just no way to know for sure.

      I think you’re right that how things are presented to us matters just as much as what is presented. I’ve learned a little about how to properly present problems while teaching. It does make a difference. So when it comes to unsolvable problems like yours and the math problem, how it was presented might have made the difference in finding a solution. In fact, it might have been the reason you both were able to find the solution.

      Perhaps without the weight of impossibility hanging over your thinking, you could let your mind wander free for a solution. If a problem is presented as unsolvable or extremely difficult, our minds might not work as hard. You might think that if experts couldn’t figure it out, how could I? If that were true, then we’d have to rethink how we present our current unsolvable problems to other people.

      • Steve,

        One of my mentors, when I was a management consultant, once told me that “90% of the solution to a problem can be found in the definition of the problem itself”. This has been one of two pieces of advice (the other was “Use what is useful, throw the rest away”) that I try to apply in everything I do. When you define your problem correctly, without all the constraints others may apply (emotions, hidden agendas, etc), I find that the solution is usually staring back from the page. The hard bit is often just making others accept you’ve come up with an answer so quickly.

        • Yeah, I think defining the problem correctly is important. I like that approach to problem-solving. When you get rid of all those constraints, the solution becomes easier to find.

          Just last night I came across someone who looked in terms of impossibilities. I was talking with a guy at a party about some technology I’d been reading about such as 3D printing and robotics and all he could talk about were their limitations. He kept saying about all the things that he thought they could never achieve. I kept on talking about how far the technology could go and about how vast their potential was. I don’t think it’s ever good to keep telling yourself what can’t be done.

  3. I know that I mentally stop myself short with some regularity. While I have on more than one occasion reached my physical limits – hiking gets me there – more often than not, I surpass what I thought was my maximum and made it through.

    Rarely do I ever test my mental limits. It’s sad to think that I am in a mental rut, but I know that it is true.

    Getting out of that comfort zone (why do ruts have to feel so comfortable?) can be quite a challenge.

    • Tammy, hiking is a great way to challenge your physical limits. It’s just like when I run. You can always go for a little while longer. Then you feel better for pushing yourself just a little more. That’s the good thing about exercises like that.

  4. I totally agree with everything you said in your article. We need to push ourselves in life to test our mental, physical and spiritual limits on a regular basis.

    I have a friend who got a degree in graphic design and after graduating from college was offered a graphic designer job for a great company on only one condition – 3 months of probation period. The job seemed quite challenging to her and she was hesitating to accept it, because she thought she could not do it and would make a fool out of herself. Unfortunately, she turned it down no matter how much I tried to convince her to give it a shot.

    Unless you try something, don’t make an assumption you can not do it – you would be surprised how much you actually can. Thanks for a very insightful article!

    • Elena, I love what you said there, “unless you try something, don’t make an assumption you can not do it.” I hate to think back to all those times I assumed I couldn’t do something and didn’t even try. Looking back now, I know I could have done them. Back then though, I would have swore that those limits were true.

      I wish your friend would have taken that position. A three month probationary period seems reasonable for a good job. I”m sure they thought she was capable of doing it, otherwise they wouldn’t have offered her the position.

      One thing I always try to keep in my head is this: most of the time, you have better skills and abilities than you give yourself credit for.

  5. Hi Steve,

    this is a great post – these limits we impose on ourselves are examples of what I call ‘Limiting Beliefs’ – and we all have them to a greater or lesser degree (hopefully lesser).

    The other thing to say about our boundaries (physical or mental) is that they do exist but probably not where we think they are and the good news is that once we push them, they stay bigger. I think it was Oliver Wendell Holmes who said something like ‘The mind, once expanded to larger dimensions or ideas, never returns to its original size.’ something like that 😉

    Invest in yourself – it’s the best investment you can make!

    take care dude,

    • Hi Alan,

      That’s a great quote and I definitely would agree with that. In my experience, the more you push yourself the more you can do. And it usually doesn’t go back to its original size.

      The thing about boundaries is that they’re hard to spot. Everyone thinks they know where they are, but most of the time, you can do more. That line you think is your limit isn’t true. I’ve found that you can always move past that mark and do more.

  6. Really helpful post. If we limit ourselves then we have stopped ourselves before we have started. One way is to set ourselves targets and keep increasing them. May be we want to cycle long distances but are hopelessly unfit. We could give up or set ourselves a 10 mile target this week, 15 the next and so on. Gradually ratcheting up the targets we can surpass what we might have originally expected and end up cycling across the country.

    • I love the idea of seeing targets. That’s how I was able to type 10,000 words last week. I set a goal that challenged me and I worked until I reached it. In effect, I passed by any limits I thought might be there.

      Ratcheting up the targets is a good idea. I remember when I started running and I could reach 10 miles then 15 and finally around 19. I was only able to do it because I kept increasing from where I had pushed last time. I think if I had tried to do 19 right away, I could have hurt myself or at least caused some major pain the next day.

  7. I absolutely loooooooove your blog! Thank you! :)

  8. This is great! I just gave a talk last night on cutting through delusion. Working with cognitive behavioral based, Mindfulness techniques, we identify and challenge preconceived beliefs and ideas from our past conditioning and work through them. Moving from there into present moment reality…recognizing the “world as it is” and not clinging to what “the world could have been” opens us up to endless possibility, and helps us move forward more clearly, mindfully, and confidently into the future.


  1. […] month Steve over at Do Something Cool had a post, “Your Physical and Mental Limits are an Illusion.” Since I read this right after I’d taken a too difficult for me hike, it really got me […]

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