Why we imagine limits

No one wants to fail. But we don’t all necessarily want to succeed, either. We say we do; when our friends talk of ambition, we’ll laud our own – to run a company, to become a millionaire, to create a new technology or write a book. But eventually ambition is tainted with the fear of failure. What if we can’t make it? What if we’re not good enough?

And then it happens – we superimpose additional conditions and apply narratives to the unknown. We stop thinking in terms of can and start entertaining the cannot. We cannot succeed, we cannot defy expectations.

There’s a reason that dreams flourish when we’re young; we haven’t yet been coerced by the nay-saying and doubt mongering. We haven’t yet told a friend our wildest ambitions, only to observe their face become awash with awkwardness, or witness a half-pitying smile break their lips.

The fear of failure first stifles our dreams, and then suffocates them. It becomes easier to tell ourselves we can’t succeed – that there exists an impassable ceiling and any contrary notion is naïve and borne from childish ignorance. These supposed limitations are explained in terms of genes, wealth, upbringing, education or any number of factors that comprise the popular formula to potential. A crummy foundation leads to a crummy house, with ill-plastered walls, crumbling roof tiles and dodgy supports, which can’t hope for more.

What a travesty it is that our imaginations are boundless in youth but narrow in age, until we see no more than a pre-laid path. Unfortunately, there exists a low-risk culture that views deviation with scepticism. It’s not always the case – as a generation of entrepreneurs can surely attest to – but it exists enough to discourage us from straying, or pursuing ambitions alien to our peers.

And yet external influences aren’t entirely to blame, either. Can’t is deferred to over won’t as a means of avoiding competition and minimizing the risk of loss and failure. Those that find tenacity in mundane tasks, in which the competition isn’t so fiercely apparent, shy from making the life choices that pit them against defeat.

It’s been said many times (but only because it points to a basic truth) that limits, as with fears, are imaginary. It’s a basic and apparent fact, and it’s precisely why we’re so enamoured by feats of unexpected triumph – when we feel part of a shackle-breaking experience. Yes, there are physical ailments that prohibit some from action, but that’s not the limit experienced by most. 

We imagine limit to provide structure to the future, and alleviate the anxiety we experience when contemplating the unknown. The conflict between ambition and fear is at the heart of inaction. How many times have we heard people talk about what they’d like to do, but haven’t yet tried? How many times have we done the same? Limits reaffirm structure. They say what can and can’t be done, because the idea that the possibilities are boundless is terrifying. We can do anything if we’re prepared to take the risk –a positively frightful notion to many for it contains no room for excuses.

Limits are imaginary. And whilst that doesn’t make them any less real or debilitating, it does mean that they’re not fixed. We can play with limit as we play with form; the only question is what we’re prepared to risk.