The Limitations That Exist Only In Our Mind

I’ve been an “amateur”, but very consistent, runner for over a decade.  I first took up running on the challenge of a law school classmate, who bet me that I would do better in my studies if I worked out 4-5 hours a week than if I dedicated that same amount of time to extra studying. I took him up on the challenge – and he proved to be correct, and I’ve been hooked every since.

I noticed something interesting recently in my running experience.  Even though I have been running, every week, with the rare exception, for over ten years, during this period I had never once exceeded, in a single run, a length of more than 10 km.  I had carved such a strong pattern of behaviour and routine that it was very easy to get out and run several times each week (in fact I craved it) but after 10 km my mind always seemed to say “you’re done now”.  I would always seem to want to stop, at roughly the 10km mark, each time I went out.

I didn’t think much about until recently.  I considered myself in good shape, and felt that 10km is a very good distance.  The hour or so it took each day (usually 4 times a week) was a nice refresher, and I just built it into my lifestyle.

But for some reason, a couple weeks ago, I wondered why it was that my body always seemed to get tired at the 10km mark, and I wondered if, in fact, it was my “mind” that was the cause of the fatigue, more so than my body. 

Besides – having run literally thousands and thousands of miles over the last decade I had to be in shape to withstand more than 10km, and come to think about it, when I would stop each day at 10km I would never be overly winded or fatigued.  I just didn’t want to run anymore.  My mind said that I was done.

I wondered if I could in fact override the mental conditioning that I had, and how difficult it would be to run a distance of more than 10km in a given session.  So, last week, while I was travelling to Southern California, I decided to do an experiment. I downloaded a podcast interview (2 hours) of a program that I enjoy.  Then I started out along the ocean (actual photo).


I had a very specific plan.  I would run until the podcast was at 1 hour, then I would turn around and run back.  2 hours total.  I would log my miles on my fitbit and hopefully I would nearly double my previous best distance.  

My experiment worked.  I got lost in the beauty of the run, and the podcast, and I was able to nearly double my best distance.  Best of all, as I was walking back into the hotel that we were staying at, I realized that I could have gone a lot further.  I wasn’t winded.  I hadn’t hit my capacity.

So stopping at 10km, for all those years, had been a mental limitation, and a habit, not an actual limitation.  I proved to myself, with a simple experiment, that I was capable of much more than my routine dictated.  

As I reflected on this, later in the day, I realized that my stopping at 10km also had a lot to do with my “belief” in my ability to run much further.  Now that I had a new reference point, I also had a new belief – that I was capable of much more.  It made me think about other “beliefs” that I had and whether they resulted in self-imposed limitations.

I think that self-imposed limitations are very natural, and every one has dealt with them in some form or another in their life.  Our society socializes us to avoid failure – even though failure, in its entirety, is absolutely unavoidable.  When we fail (note I said “when” not if) it is very easy to build our experience in as a reference point that sets an artificial boundary for future engagements.

I see this all the time with entrepreneurs.  Entrepreneurs who have experienced great success in the past have a reference point of what they are capable of.  They often set their initial sites much higher than someone who hasn’t previously experienced success, and if they fail, they don’t define their future by that particular failure (because they have a counter-acting reference point of success).

Self-belief, about our potential in the future, is largely influenced by our experiences from the past.  If we’ve succeeded in the past we often believe we are capable of future success.  If we have failed in the past we often doubt our ability to succeed in the future. 

I coach new entrepreneurs and I can immediately tell, by the goals that people set for themselves, what their past experience has been and whether or not they believe themselves capable of significant achievement.  People who set mediocre goals, are burdened by limiting self-beliefs, and also often have had prior reference points in their life that suggest that they aren’t capable of achieving great things.

But guess what….in almost all cases these limitations are self imposed.  They aren’t based in reality.  They are based in their mind.

Just like my experience running.  10km was not my limit.  20km isn’t my limit either.  I am capable of much more.  We are all capable of much more than we think we are – in just about all elements of our life.  I believe that we have to learn to test our limitations on our own.  We can’t expect society, or anyone else to do it for us, but when we do, and when we realize that we have been living under a false assumption for so long, it will excite us and motivate us to reach higher and set more compelling and exciting goals.

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