Limitations: Myth or Mystery?

Upon hearing me say that “with confidence everything is possible,” a college professor said “Preschoolers think they can do anything…build a rocket, go to the moon…then reality sets in.”

His response reminded me of a nurse who expressed her frustration over being unable to get the parents of a child with disabilities to be “realistic in their expectations.” Her intentions were good; she wanted to protect the parents from the pain of disappointment.

As I pondered these comments, my eyes fell upon a book I had just been given. The book is On Fire by John O’Leary. I’d heard John’s story before. He’d had a horrific accident as a child. Not only did he survive, he’s thrived.

These competing perspectives left me wondering “Are limitations myth or mystery?”


A myth is a story we tell ourselves that makes sense. All too often we embrace myths as reality.

This particularly true of people who are NOT experiencing what others are. We’re inspired by military veterans who, despite having lost both legs, run marathons. Other severely-wounded veterans lift weights I wouldn’t begin to attempt.

Yet we don’t realize that the limitations we presume for them are myths…fabrications of our imaginations. John O’Leary is an example of someone accomplishing what others thought impossible.

Daniel Gilbert, in his book Stumbling on Happiness, said that conjoined twins he interviewed said they couldn’t imagine a life without their sibling attached. They were happy and wouldn’t change a thing. Yet those of us who haven’t had that life experience quickly judge their lives unconscionable…yet another myth.

Nassim Taleb, author of Fooled By Randomness, said that we often draw erroneous cause/effect conclusions. In this instance, we presume limitations for ourselves and others based on what we observe. We assume that the limitations we typically see are reality. In the process we overlook all evidence to the contrary…the military veterans and John O’Learys of the world.

That’s why I’m suggesting that limitations we perceive are myths…fabrications.


The truth is that none of us knows what is or isn’t possible until we try. In other words, what is or isn’t possible is a mystery. I can sit hear and say that I can’t run a 4-minute mile. The reality is that I don’t know because I’ve never trained with that goal in mind.

I can say that I’ll never run a 4-minute mile because I have no desire to do so. That’s accurate, but that’s not the same as saying I can’t do it. Consequently, whether I can or can’t remains a mystery.

People said that Russell Wilson, the quarterback of the Seattle Seahawks, was too small to play quarterback in the National Football League. In his first season with the Seahawks he took his team to the playoffs. In the second year, they won the SuperBowl.

The world-champion Williams sisters were told by their friends that they were crazy when they said they were going to be world-class tennis champions. It seems their friends were engaged in mythical thinking.

All of these examples have one thing in common, desire. John O’Leary, military veterans, the Williams sisters, Russell Wilson all have the desire to excel. They also know that no one is free of limitations, that those who desire something enough find a way to overcome their limitations.

My lack of desire to run a 4-minute mile will cause my ability to remain a mystery for the rest of my life…and that’s okay. If something isn’t important to you, that’s fine. Absent desire, even people as confident as I am won’t be successful because they are unwilling to invest the time and energy necessary to enjoy that success. But not because they are unable.

For you

The next time you feel yourself dwelling on all the reasons that you can’t achieve something you desire, remember that limitations are myths…that desire always overwhelms limitations. Even if you don’t reach the ultimate goal…a 4-minute mile…you’ll come much closer than you ever imagined possible.

For our kids

Kids experience all the same doubts, fears and anxiety we do. When you see them in that mode, when you see them accepting defeat because of some perceived limitation, help them evaluate their desire. If it’s there, cite some of the examples listed above or those from your own life. They need to at least consider the possibility of success. Once they open the door to that possibility, desire will take over.

If the desire isn’t there, help them realize that just because they choose not to do something doesn’t mean they are incapable of doing it. For, as you’ve seen, limitations are myths of our own creation. Mysteries only exist until we try…for it’s only then that we realize what truly is possible.

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