No Limits

Ever caught yourself thinking ‘My memory isn’t what it used to be’?

If you’re over the age of 35, I’m pretty sure you’ll have muttered that to yourself at some point. Happens to me all the time — when I can’t recall a name, or a word, or where I put down the keys, my glasses, or the car when I popped into the supermarket …

‘I’ll never be able to remember all that!’ is my first thought when faced with a new script to learn, or a new programme to master.

And yet I do.


These disempowering ‘affirmations’ don’t just get in the way and slow me down, unnecessarily. They’re also plain wrong. I’m just making things harder for myself with faulty, self-imposed limits.

Researchers at the Salk Institute have come up with new data about the size of neural connections. The research suggests that the memory capacity of the brain is far far higher than previous estimates. In fact it appears to be in the petabyte range — that’s the same ballpark area as the entire World Wide Web.

My little brain can’t quite handle that. Except apparently it can. Because it’s not really so little after all.

Perhaps we could each of us learn, and understand, the entire works of Shakespeare, the Bible, the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita and the Encyclopedia Britannica … if we only gave up the story that our memories are both finite and faulty. And because our brains are very energy efficient, we could probably do it all without overheating our inner CPU!

So it’s worth pausing a moment and pondering where else in life we’re setting limits on our potential. Limits on what we could achieve physically, what we could earn, where we could take our business or our career or our life …

Time and time again, history has thrown up individuals who have broken the rules, exceeded the limits, pushed their respective envelopes and achieved the impossible.

Often they’ve done it because they have an extraordinary work ethic and they’ve been willing to push themselves beyond the reasonable, far outside the comfort zone that most of us occupy.

Almost certainly they’ve done it because, either through immense good fortune in the way they were brought up and how their brains were programmed, or because they’ve worked damned hard to retrain their thinking and upgrade their self talk, they believed that they COULD achieve it. That for them it was possible. Even if no one else had ever achieved it before.

How often has one person’s achievement opened the floodgates for others to follow, once the example has been set and the label of impossibility removed? Think Roger Bannister and the 4 minute mile. Think of the business breakthroughs where existing records have been smashed by bright and ambitious young people with a big vision, a great work ethic and no limits on what they believe is possible.

Folk tales and legends are full of heroines and heroes who achieve amazing things because they don’t know that they can’t. They escape danger because they’re unaware that the danger exists, or if they do know it’s there, it’s certainly not what they’re focused on.

As parents, we want our children to be safe. Safe and happy. We want them to excel, of course, but unwittingly, and with the purest of intentions, we often project our own limitations, our own inherited sense of what’s possible and ‘realistic’. We don’t want them to fail, as we may have done, so we hamper them from succeeding.

Super achievers often acknowledge their parents’ total belief that they could achieve anything they set their minds to (and, crucially, work hard at). Think of Richard Branson and Katherine Hepburn — both brought up in a ‘no limits’ environment.

Remember the jumping fleas of Victorian travelling circuses? These tiny creatures can jump to extraordinary heights, but they were trained to jump just a few inches by being kept in boxes with lids. Bump your head enough times and you pretty quickly work out how to avoid the headache.

What if the glass ceiling is only there because we think it’s there?

‘Many many studies suggest that the limits we assume are real, are artificial, and that we don’t have to accept them at all,’ says Dr Ellen Langer, the first woman ever to be tenured in psychology at Harvard.

There’s a lovely (possibly apocryphal) story of an eager young school teacher and her first class. She’s given a list of her students’ names and is delighted to see from the attached figures that these are all children with very high IQs. At the end of her first term the head calls her in to congratulate her on the phenomenal progress her pupils have made. He tells her how surprised her colleagues have been, given that this is the remedial class. ‘No no!’ she says. ‘I saw their IQ scores — these are the smartest kids in the school — I expected them to do this well!’ ‘Their IQ scores?’ queries the head. ‘ What I gave you was a list of their locker numbers!’

Expectations are powerful things. They can work for us and they can work against us.

What might we wish for if we didn’t know we couldn’t have it? What might we achieve if we didn’t know it wasn’t possible?

WHAT and IF are two mighty words when used in combination. When we’re setting goals for ourselves, and dreaming our dreams of possible futures, we’d do well to use them more often.

‘The limits of the possible can only be defined by going beyond them into the impossible,’ wrote Arthur C. Clarke

So let’s not limit our challenges.

Let’s challenge our limits.

After all, our brains are the size of the World Wide Web!