We’re often told by elders and motivational speakers to “shoot for the stars,” and that “our potential is limitless.” I don’t know about you, but for me, there’s something wrong about these statements. I think that accepting your limits in life is always more beneficial than being ignorant of them. Here’s why:
1) Knowing your limits is motivating.
Being told that my potential is limitless paralyzes me: What if I don’t reach that potential? Am I flawed if I don’t? Should I be working harder to achieve this grand potential? Is what I’m doing now not good enough?
When these destructive questions and thoughts flood my mind, they deflate my creative confidence. They de-energize my spirit. When I hear that I should “shoot for the stars,” I lift my focus too far ahead, instead of channelling it to where I am now—the grindstone, the task at hand. When I hear that my “potential is limitless,” I look at completed work and berate myself for it not being good enough.
Who would want to live a life like that, one that’s never quite good enough? (This is how artists take to drink and unproductive bouts of self-loathing.)
Alternatively, when I hear that my limits are real, that it’s wise to work within them, it motivates me. I don’t have to be the greatest novelist that has ever lived; I only have to be the best novelist that I can be. This inspires me to stop the self-deprecation and drawing comparisons to others, and plough forward in the work.
This realistic mindset is powerful; I’m no longer paralyzed by high expectations or fear of failure.
2) Knowing your limits fuels art.
Isn’t art essentially about limitations?
Novels and films and songs cannot exceed a certain length—or else they become tedious and redundant. Portraits must be created on a limited amount of material. A novel can expand in a million directions and shadow the lives of many different characters, but it must only tell one story. Picking which character to mirror, and which story to tell, creates a sense of limitation.
Limitations create urgency, tension, anxiety, which are fuel for creativity.
3) Knowing your limits is liberating.
You suck at some things; you excel at others. You’re naturally gifted in some arenas, but not so much in others. Sometimes your work is exceptional; sometimes it’s crap. This should feel liberating, not self-puncturing. Why must we expect ourselves to be amazing at everything, all the time?
When we expect genius production around the clock, or in an area we’re not naturally designed to excel in, we deaden, even paralyze, our efforts.
Limits are very real. You have a limited amount of innate talent. You have a limited amount of experience. You have a limited amount of formal training in your particular craft. You have a limited amount of intelligence. You have a limited amount of time and energy to work on your painting after a stressful day at the office. You have a limited amount of canvas to work with, and a limited amount of current ideas to choose from.
Let not these limits constrict you, but free you. Let them inspire you to work ferociously within them. Be inventive inside the box, because we all live inside our own boxes formed by our personal (internal and external) limitations.
From now on, I’m going to allow myself to suck at writing. I’m going to accept my inner limitations—my life’s greatest novel could be worse than another’s journal scribbling. I’m going to accept my outer limitations—when I come home from work, I’m tired, it’s late, and I only have a limited amount of time and energy to write; I will try my best to work within these limits, instead of denying them.