The Overlooked Beauty of Limitations

Perhaps you’ve never seen beauty in the limitations of yourself or others. It’s not surprising. As a society, we’ve been taught that limitations are synonymous with weakness, something to be rooted out and overcome. In this spirit, we often find ourselves filling our lives with goals and tasks have little or no meaning to our souls, simply to prove a point or live up to the standards of others.

How many times have you forced yourself to do something, scraping and clawing to pass each milestone, only to realize that the resulting success was something you ultimately didn’t want or need? The hard-won promotion takes your career in an unfulfilling direction; the relationship you struggled to secure soon feels confining. Sure, you proved you could do it, but did you really want to in the first place?

When the self-help and popular psychology movement began promoting the idea of unlimited potential around the 60’s and 70’s, it was a breath of fresh air. Having lived with severe cultural and personal limitations for centuries, we needed permission to pursue our dreams. Unfortunately, this life-affirming message itself became a limitation, a mantra used as a club whenever we came across something we couldn’t achieve.

Sometimes it’s true that the only thing holding us back is fear. Sometimes the challenges placed before us simply serve to harden our resolve, or to make us look for a better way. Other times, however, limitations are an opportunity to ask the hard questions that help us clarify our true goals and values. Limitations also serve as boundaries, keeping us focused on what is really important.

If you’ve ever played a game of any sort, you know that games are defined as much by the rules as the goals. Players mutually agree to abide by certain limitations, and this gives meaning to both victory and loss. If these agreed-upon limitations didn’t exist, a chess player could move his or her knight diagonally to checkmate the opponent’s king, or a pawn could have free reign on the board. Eventually, there would be no reason to play at all. So how does this apply to our own limitations?

In life, our boundaries often serve to define our own personal playing field. As human beings, we are each born with a unique combination of talents, skills, and yes, shortcomings. Just as a machine is built to perform certain tasks and not others, we are made in much the same way. For example, you wouldn’t expect a washing machine to cook a casserole, nor would you use a stove to mow the lawn. Instead, you would use each machine to do the tasks it was designed for, not wasting one minute lamenting the fact that your hair dryer can’t process vegetables.

While we are much more complex than machines and play many roles during our lifetimes, we still must take our own psychological and physical make-up into account. What comes easily to one person may be exceedingly difficult for another. The physics major who revels in decoding the secrets of the universe through mathematics may find the language of poetry inscrutable. The talented composer might make a disastrous accountant or secretary. These types of limitations should be considered carefully whenever we encounter them.

The question is, how do we tell the difference between an honest limitation and a simple challenge? One caveat to remember is that labor without joy frequently bears bitter fruit. In other words, if the journey you must take in order to reach a goal is fraught with hardship, the end result may not be as sweet. That doesn’t mean you won’t run into obstacles following your true path, or even that you’ll enjoy every aspect of the journey. It simply means that you need to take a good look at what truly fulfills you, and what you’re willing to do in order achieve it.

Another important question to ask is, “Is this my goal, or someone else’s”? Society begins programming us the moment we are born, and oftentimes we have to make a concerted effort to separate our true desires from ones that have been thrust upon us. Do you really want to be a fireman, or is that what your father wanted for you? Is becoming a doctor really the shining achievement your mother said it was? Is getting a college degree truly necessary in today’s economy, or have we been sold a bill of goods?

These questions are ones that only we can answer for ourselves, and only we can accurately discern the rules and limitations we play best by. This is the gift that our limitations have to offer—to show us the boundaries that define our game board so that we may focus on playing our own game as best we can.