We are experts at dismissing possibilities that don’t feel right. Based on our limited knowledge, we limit our thinking to a range of possibilities. By realizing that the true range of possibilities is broader, we can maximize our potential and become better problem solvers.
Until Roger Bannister ran a sub-4-minute mile in 1954, people thought it was an impossible feat. In 2021 alone, in the United States, almost 20 runners have clocked sub-4-minute miles. We can attribute some of the gains in running performance to better training techniques and athletic gear. But I doubt those alone can account for the growing ranks of sub-4-milers. It has more to do with people believing that a sub-4-minute mile is possible. Once someone achieves a feat thought impossible, it invites a lot more people to attempt to repeat the feat.
It is often the case that there is a psychological barrier between us and the thing outside the range of what’s possible. It’s this realm outside the assumed range of possibilities where pioneering work happens.
For the 1960 Rome Olympics, Ethiopia had picked a runner to represent them in the marathon event. The runner ended up getting injured in a soccer match and Ethiopia had to find a replacement. They ended up picking a bodyguard for the royal family, known for this athletic ability, as the replacement athlete. When the athlete reached Rome, he could not find shoes that fit him. The athlete, Abebe Bikila, chose to run barefoot and ended up winning the Marathon. Most people would dismiss the idea of running barefoot in a marathon and give a host of reasons why it’s not advisable. Yet, Bikila, a second choice athlete running barefoot, won an Olympic gold in one of the world’s great endurance tests.
How do we acquire limiting beliefs? Experience and received truths shape our beliefs. Experience works like this – we run barefoot on the road and pick up a thorn so we form the belief that one must not run barefoot. A received truth would be something we read in a book or hear on a podcast and incorporate into our belief system without questioning. It’s too easy to imbibe received truths but hard to eject them.
What are the downsides of limiting beliefs? For one, we limit our own potential. If we hold limiting beliefs, we stay inside what we call our comfort zone. If we concede we are bad at math, or programming or that we are physically weak or slow runners, we will not put in the work to advance ourselves.
Slotting ourselves will hold us captive in our current state. But by eschew limiting beliefs about our abilities, we will invest in skills and practice without judgement. Developing skills is one of the ways to move forward in life.
Limiting beliefs also hamper the advancement of a society. A mass of people having similar limiting beliefs will object, judge and hold back the ones who are testing those beliefs. One of these tests could lead to a breakthrough that shows a new way to solve societal problems.
How can we keep limiting beliefs in check? If we pay attention to our own objections to ideas and know our track record of judgements, we will become aware of our limiting beliefs. When we become aware of our limiting beliefs and adopt an experimental attitude, we can go beyond the assumed range of possibilities.