It’s been another year. Ten minutes after writing this sentence I found myself looking for a smooth way to continue. When you post once a year, it’s easy to focus on eloquent salutations. But that’s not why I’m here. The reason I keep coming back, now for the fifth year in a row, is to share things I have realized. For me, a key part of life is discovery of what it actually means to live, and these posts, regardless of their frequency, are mileposts on that road. And as it happens, since the last post I’ve come quite a distance. So hello everyone, hope everything is well, and let’s cut straight to the chase. This post is going to be long enough already.
The puzzle I wrote about last year is still there. In fact, it has evolved significantly. More pieces have been identified and placed into their right spots. But on the way something unexpected has happened — the puzzle has grown in complexity. It felt like exploring a solid object and suddenly discovering that it’s made of molecules, which in turn are made of atoms, which in turn are made of particles. While realization like this means more exploration, it also leads to re-evaluation of some pieces. What looked for years like a monolithic unit suddenly becomes a fluffy imaginary concept. Take limits for example.
The title of this post sounds a line straight from that 90s techno song. It has to be a metaphor, right? Our life is full of limits. We experience them every day. They are everywhere. We are limited in many, many ways, whether we like it or not. Or are we?
First of all, what’s a limit? There are multiple definitions, but the most basic one, to quote Oxfod Dictionary, is “a point or level beyond which something does not or may not extend or pass”. When we think or talk about our life, that something is our thoughts and actions. We refer to a limit to outline their possible range, to draw a border between we consider possible and what we believe is outside our reach. I’m too tired to work on this, I think I’ve just reached my limit… I won’t able to run that fast, that would be really beyond my limit… I have to stay realistic, I know my limits… We think and say phrases like this all the time. In fact, more often than not we don’t even bother articulating the existence of a limit — we simply know it’s there. And why shouldn’t we? Aren’t we indeed limited? We can’t outrace a train, can’t move a 10-ton rock and certainly can’t breath underwater. Yes, it’s possible to push our limits, but there’s a limit on how we can push them.
So what’s wrong with this picture? Everything. As always, the devil is hiding in the fine print.
Let’s start with the obvious: this is not about physical limits. Actually, I would argue that even physical limits are only convenient mental models, but there is no way to do this convincingly without turning this post into a five-page essay, delving into psychology, physics and philosophy (and believe me, I’ve tried — this is the fifth time I’m re-writing this text). So for the purposes of this post, let’s put physical limits aside, at least for now, and take a closer look at things that exist inside our mind.
Consider a limit that we all so well familiar with: speed limit. It’s posted wherever we drive and it’s rather specific. Yet, doesn’t pass a simple test against the dictionary definition. True, any speed limit sign speaks of a specific point. But we all know that we can go faster than it and in fact, many of us do. Going beyond it can bring some benefits (getting faster to our destination) and quite a few potential problems, ranging from minor (a ticket) to major (injury or death). So we choose not to go faster than that number, or at least exceed it without speeding like a car on a NASCAR track. But should we choose to, we can go faster, much faster, actually. Moreover, police and ambulance do it routinely. Same can be said about most points we mentally mark as limits: they prompt us to slow down, to stay below a certain level. But they don’t really mark a border beyond which we physically cannot go.
Now let’s leave the physical world for a moment and dive into something more abstract. Imagine an infinite plane, like the one they use in math books and on covers of SciFi magazines. It is unlimited, isn’t it? It stretches from infinity to infinity, after all. True. But only as long as you look at two dimensions. Its thickness is as limited as something can be — it’s plain zero. When it comes to the third dimension, an infinite plane is more limited than a sheet of paper. And yet when we think of it, we think of what makes it infinite, not limited.
Same applies to our lives. Limited as we appear to be in our physical characteristics — including the number of moments we get to live — we are truly, literally limitless when it comes to the ways to apply our capabilities. We can set an infinite number of goals, find an infinite number of way to spend our moments and consider infinite range of options when making a choice. We can be limitless — if we choose to. But most of the time we don’t. We set mental lines not to be crossed, not even to be approached — and call them our limits. Yet whatever we are limiting with these boundaries, they exists only in our mind. Moreover, these internal limits rarely even approach the true extent of our physical or mental capabilities.
We are all born free. Weak, vulnerable, helpless, but free. At that point we are not aware of consequences of our actions — and of ourselves, for that matter — and as such we cannot restrict them. It’s a very strange freedom, freedom of complete ignorance, and it doesn’t mean much because true freedom implies purposeful action. But in that state we don’t limit ourselves — just ask any parent.
As we grow up, we discover things we like and dislike. We learn to desire the former and to avoid the latter. And in order to avoid everything unpleasant, we begin reducing the extent of our actions and even thoughts. We have to. Otherwise we’d be falling off balconies and sticking our hands into fireplaces all the time. And so we create mental lines not to be crossed and internalize some of them to the degree that they become fully subconscious.
Many of these limits are necessary, since they keep us and others safe. They are also good for channeling our efforts to achieve a better outcome (more about this in another post). But many — way too many — limits are created out of different shades of fear and guilt. We want to avoid risk, potential humiliation, physical harm, frustration, rejection. Be it public speaking, learning a new skill, changing a job, asking out someone we like, taking on a challenging task, moving to a new town, standing up to a bully or expressing ourselves honestly, so often we choose to play it safe. And we do it over and over, and over again. What makes these choices fully justified to ourselves? Our own creations. Limits.
Yet unlike laws of physics they exist only in our imagination. Gravity is real. Our limit in defying it is not. That’s why people have walked the Moon and why we can enjoy close up pictures of Pluto. A limit is a boundary beyond which we think we cannot go in a chosen action. But actions are only means to accomplishing goals. And if you look at it this way, most of our so called limits disappear immediately. Or rather, they become irrelevant. You can actually outrace a train — if you get on a plane (though some try using their legs for that). You can move a 10-ton rock — all it takes is a bulldozer (or a clever use of levers). And yes, you can breath underwater — it’s called scuba diving. This all sounds like a no brainer, but how often have you hit a “limit” just because you thought of an action and not of the desired outcome?
And just like the zero-thick infinite surface we can be limitless. We’d still have to deal with laws of physics, biology and social norms. But they should only determine our options, not prevent us from accomplishing our goals. Because the alternative to being limitless is to be limited — in a few or in many ways. This is how most of us spend our lives. Bound by mental uncrossable lines, created by our imagination or learned from others. Giving up when we think we can’t go further, without realizing that there are more ways to achieve the goal. Or worse, not even trying because there is a dark wall looming somewhere down the road. And so we make limits real by not trying to go beyond or around them. Yet, they are not a real unless we make them to. That’s how I used to live. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Not only there is a way to feel limitless — there’s is a way to be limitless.
And the most important part of it is that as great as it sounds, becoming limitless is not the ultimate goal. It is only a step. A step into a state that makes everything else possible. It’s a foundation of life as it can be. As it should be. It is only the beginning.