How to Avoid Self-Limitation and Do the Impossible

Luke: “I can’t believe it!”  Yoda: “That is why you fail”

It may not seem like it, but most of the time the one thing holding people back from what they really want in life is a lack of belief.

If you don’t believe something is possible, really believe it, you are just playing the cosmic lottery.

Let’s look at an example.

I just finished up the latest book by a couple of my favorite authors, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, called Think Like a Freak. It was excellent and I highly recommend it.

One of my favorite chapters was about the eating champion Kobayashi. When he signed up for his first hot dog eating championship he was a complete unknown. Plus he was nothing like the prototypical eating contestant. Small and thin, he was dwarfed by his fellow competitors.

At the end of the competitions however, Kobayashi had not only won, but he had done something that no one would have thought possible. He nearly doubled the standing record.

             Previous record: 28 1/4

Kobayashi’s record: 50!

How did he do it? In all of his preparation, and during the competition, he never let himself think about the record. He didn’t set it as a target to achieve. He just worked his process and ate as many hot dogs as he possibly could before time expired.

Let’s look at one more example:

Last week I went hiking in the incredible Columbia River Gorge outside Portland, OR. At the trailhead my wife and I ran into a few other WDS attendees who noticed my shirt and asked if we wanted to tag along on a three and a half mile hike they had planned. I hadn’t really made any plans beyond getting out in nature and exploring, so we decided to take them up on their offer.

Seven miles later, with our legs shaking, we made it back to our car. Not only was the hike twice as long as we had been told, but nearly the whole route was a series of switchbacks climbing 1600′. We were exhausted.

The hike was otherworldly though. It felt a little like we’d been transported to the Forest Moon of Endor. We wandered through massive trees hung with moss, and past incredible waterfalls surrounded by lush greenery.

The thing is, we might have missed that experience if our companions had correctly read the map and noticed their planned route was twice as long as they thought. It’s not that we would shrink from a long hike, it’s that number: seven miles.

Seven miles is outside of my range for a casual diversion. My mind would have started telling me that we weren’t prepared. That we didn’t have enough water or snacks to tackle something like that. I would have quickly convinced myself that it would eat up our entire day, our only free day for the whole trip. I firmly believe we would have said no.

Since I’ve been home I’ve decided to take this idea a little further and run a test on myself. For the last year I’ve been setting myself a daily word quota. After pondering the examples above, I started to wonder how much more I could get done if I wrote with a time limit instead. What would happen if I worked as hard as I could until my time expired? The results were embarrassing.

Minutes to write 500 words: 67

  Words written in 30 minutes: 1565

You can probably guess it changed the way I approach my writing.

Ok, I think you get the idea. What you believe is possible can hold you back.

Sometimes you have to trick yourself to avoid limiting yourself.

Here are a few suggestions that work for me:

1.  Set a time limit not a physical limit – When you put a quantitative number on your goals, you will naturally begin to back off as you approach that goal. It’s why boxers are taught to not punch their opponent, but to punch through them. It’s why sprinters are taught to run to a spot beyond the tape. Physical limits can limit output. Go with time instead.

2. Lie to yourself – Tell yourself that you are going to quit in just a few more minutes. When that time expires set yourself another short target to achieve and convince yourself that you are really going to quit when you get to that one. Rinse and repeat. This method has been used by many of the great sufferers throughout history: Navy SEALs, political prisoners, ultra-endurance athletes, people in bad marriages, etc.

3. Set ridiculous goals – Think of the absolute maximum that you think you could ever achieve, after years of struggle, and then double it. Make that your target. Keep driving toward it. Ignore the people who will tell you that you are being unreasonable. Keep going and every once and a while take a glance in the rearview mirror to see how far you have come. You will be surprised. This is the concept of True North. You continually strive for unattainable perfection, knowing you will never reach it, but driving toward it relentlessly anyway. If you ever do happen to get there, set a new, even more ridiculous goal and then start up that mountain.

How about you? What artificial limits do you believe in? How much are they holding you back? What are the things the voices in your head tell you are not possible? What tricks do you use to achieve better results? 

Captive Pricing and a Homeschooling an Entrepreneur

Yesterday Eli decided he wanted to spend some of his savings on a new Wii U game. From those simple beginnings things evolved into quite the adventure. A few hours later we had both learned a few things about life and business.

The first step in our quest naturally was to do a little price shopping. One Google search later we quickly discovered two things:

1. Walmart had the game for ten dollars less than anyone else in town ($39)
2. Eli didn’t have enough in his piggy bank to buy the game on his own ($21)

He’s a sensitive kid who had already decided that he NEEDED this game. Coming up short really bothered him. He first attempted to convince us that if he paid $15 and we paid the rest all would be right with the world. He wasn’t willing to spend everything he had. In his mind it might be all the money he was ever going to have in this lifetime (at least that was how he presented it to us).

We calmly explained that, in general, you have to work to get money to buy things, and that maybe he should think about finding a way to come up with the money that he needed to make up the difference. He wasn’t a fan of this. He did have some money in his long term savings account, and in the end we agreed he could take some money out of there as long as he found a way to earn enough to pay himself back in the next few weeks. He agreed and we headed off to the bank, then to Walmart to buy the game.

Along the way the little guy started asking some very good questions. First he wanted to know how you get people to give you money. I explained that you have to have something that people are more willing to pay for than they are to do for themselves. Generally you have to either make something that isn’t easy for just anyone to make or know something that takes a lot of time to learn. He thought about this and decided that he was against such things on principle.

“People should just do things for themselves instead of paying other people to do them,” he said.

I was suddenly a very proud do-it-yourself, independent minded dad. Still I had to admit to him that some things are simply beyond reach. We can’t, for instance, create our own internet service. Money is almost an inevitable part of life. After that we got into the definition of a market and the importance of finding your market before you spend time and money creating a product. He thinks helping parents understand Minecraft so they can help their kids get started might be an excellent place for him to start, but I don’t want to ruin his idea. In the end we had covered a lot of Entrepreneurship 101. It was a good discussion, and right in the middle Clara piped up with her idea to sell a few of her thousands of drawings in an online store. With all of that behind us we headed into the store.

This is where I started learning things. Standing in front of the locked game case at the back of the store we realized that the price listed under the game was $10 higher than it had been online. I flagged down a store employee and showed him the online price on my phone. He sheepishly explained that the online store was completely separate from the brick and mortar store and they could not give us that price.

My son did not take this well either. After all of the discussion he suddenly saw that he still didn’t have enough money to get his game. This time I stepped in to help. I asked to speak to the manager who repeated what the first guy had said and told us how sorry he was. While I had him there, I noticed that the online listing said I could buy it through the site at the reduced price and pick it up at the store. There were several copies right there on the shelf, so I clicked buy it now.

Twenty minutes later a dutiful employee came walking over from the service desk two hundred feet  away, unlocked the case and carried the game back. The kids and I walked over and picked up the game. It was one of the most ridiculous shopping scenarios I have ever been a part of. The hell of it was, it wasn’t the first time.

A few months back the exact same thing happened. That time we’d switched to a different game to keep Eli on an even keel and hadn’t realized that we were being scammed by the largest retailer in the world. You see no where on their site does it say that the pricing is exclusive to online orders. You don’t find out about that up-charge until you have already driven to the store, parked, and walked all the way to the back. I am guessing they figure you will decide $10 isn’t too much more to pay since you are already there. In my case they were wrong, and they have lost a customer.

On the way home this made me think about all of the blogs out there that give away something for free to get your email address and then relentlessly spam you with paid product offers. I know this is standard web marketing and I know that it works very well, but it feels just as dirty as what Walmart tried to pull on my son.

So now I have a commitment to make. I’m currently working on some things that I plan on giving away to readers. I’m doing it for selfish reasons, I want more traffic so I can build a community here, but I’m also doing it because I think some of it might be useful to people. When the time comes however, I will give you a choice. Free is free in the Learn. Write. Repeat. world. If you want to sign up, I’m happy to have you, but if not, that’s fine too. I will let my work speak for itself. If you like it, maybe you;ll come back for more. If not, then it’s on me. That’s going to be the deal. I expect you guys to hold me to it.

The Benefits of Letting Go of Control

Control leads to compliance; autonomy leads to engagement.”
― Daniel H. Pink

I have two kids. They’re good kids. They’re smart and curious and laugh a lot. They’re also demanding and frustrating and still learning their place in the world, like all kids. Teaching them is my toughest job. I’m not talking about addition and subtraction, I mean more important things like the virtues of failing, how hard work trumps talent every time, and why they need be life long learners.

The best path to ingraining grit, perseverance, and curiosity is autonomy.

Autonomy is just a fancy word for independence. It means you have the capability and freedom to make decisions and act on your own. It’s also another thing that I picked up while working at Toyota.

Internally, Toyota is known as a learning organization that just happens to sell cars.  From their humble beginnings building looms, their history is full of examples of needing to solve difficult problems so they could continue to grow. Consistently they’ve used relentless determination and an openness to learning from failure to find ways to teach themselves what they needed to know.

One of the keys to their success in this is giving their employees autonomy. Toyota managers learned long ago that when you give someone a challenging task and let them figure things out for themselves, they’ll usually surprise you.

Often they’ll find solutions you’d never have considered. Not only that, they’ll really start to own their project. They can’t help but be engaged. You no longer have to be on continual watch for compliance because they will police themselves. Plus, that kind of hard won knowledge is grounded in practical personal experience and is the foundation for further learning.

There is no better way to build self-confidence than by struggling through a difficult problem and coming up with a new solution.

Giving people autonomy is hard. For many of us our instinct is to control. We think we need to have the final say on everything if we want to avoid disaster. The truth is, complete control is impossible.

This is even more true when it comes to raising kids. I often catch myself wanting to protect them from everything. I have to resist the urge to show them the “right way” to do things and give them space to find what works for them.

For a while now I’ve been trying to build autonomy into the kids’ lives. Here are a few examples:

  • Most of the dishes are on a level that the kids can reach (Eli is 8 and Clara is only 4).
  • Their favorite foods in the refrigerator and pantry are ready to eat and reachable.
  • They have routines for the morning (get breakfast, brush teeth, get dressed) and for bedtime (shower, PJ’s, brush teeth, pick up their room and put away laundry) that they’re expected to follow on their own.
  • Eli’s homeschool curriculum has several subjects (chess, German, exercise, reading, and journaling) that he’s been given responsibility for. He takes care of these on his own each day. He even chose to study these himself.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a work in progress. Sometimes I have to go over my expectations again, sometimes they try to pretend they’re helpless, still they’re moving closer every day to independence. Their self-confidence is growing as well. I am proud of their progress.

So next time you find yourself wanting to step in and dictate action, either at work or at home, take a step back. Delegate instead. Provide the tools for success. I think you’ll like the results.