Well, here we are in another new year. Who knows what 2023 will bring? Regardless of what it brings, you can flourish if you see your possibilities, not your limitations. In this article, I explain why this is, and how you shift your mindset to see the possibilities, not the limitations.
Many years ago, I was going through one of those periods we all seem to go through. I was slightly bummed out and feeling a bit frustrated by life. As I remember, I was absent-mindedly watching a movie. The movie wasn’t very good, in fact I only remember one thing about it. Two characters were talking and one said to the other something along the lines of “See your possibilities, not your limitations.” I really can’t remember if that’s exactly what was said, and I’ve tried to find the movie with no luck. The movie was forgettable, but that line … oh that line … it literally changed my life. It was like a metaphorical slap to the back of my head. “You idiot, quit seeing the limitations in your life, see the possibilities.” For decades now, that phrase has been in the signature line of my email messages, and has been the signature line for my life. “See your possibilities, not your limitations.” Such a simple, powerful idea. That little phrase, that big philosophy has helped me marry two wonderful women, get a Ph.D., become a dean … even start this little podcast. Everything I’ve accomplished came from seeing the possibilities, not the limitations.
Of course, this isn’t an easy lesson to learn. Like anything, it takes practice. Aristotle said that we are what we repeatedly do, so the way to be a person who sees possibilities, not limitations is through conscious practice. I’ll give you some tips on building this practice later in this episode. First, though, let’s talk about how limitations affect your flourishing.
Constraints, autonomy and control
I’m going to make a bit of a terminology switch here. Instead of “limitations” I’m going to use the word “constraints.” but I mean basically the same thing by the two words. A constraint is something that limits you. A constraint impedes you from performing some action. Here we’re going to talk about when a constraint blocks you from progressing towards some goal.
So, how do constraints or limitations affect your flourishing? We can turn to one of my favorite theories from psychology, self-determination theory. Here “self-determination” refers to your ability to make choices and manage your life. Another way to say this is that self-determination is the extent of control you think you have over your life. Having a strong sense of self-determination or control is essential to your flourishing. By the way, I talked about the importance of control in an earlier article, Taking Control of Your Life, which is available at livewellandflourish.com. I’ll drop a link below.
Basically, self-determination theory states that three main factors affect your self-determination beliefs and your flourishing, your beliefs about autonomy, competence, and relatedness. The first two are relevant here. Autonomy beliefs concern the extent to which you feel you are free to act as a result of your own desires. Your competence beliefs are about the degree to which you think you can interact with your environment to produce desired outcomes or prevent undesired outcomes. Relatedness beliefs concern the extent to which you feel connected to others; it's important, relatedness is important but it isn't really relevant to what we're talking about today.
When you focus on limitations … constraints … you place attention on things that hinder you, which will lower your autonomy beliefs, which harms your flourishing. Similarly, focusing on constraints is likely to make you think you can’t achieve your goal, which will reduce your competence beliefs, and this further hurts your flourishing. Refocusing on your possibilities puts your attention on what you CAN accomplish, which will boost your feelings of competence. So, to maximize your flourishing, you should focus on your possibilities, not your limitations.
Let's talk about two broad categories of constraints, external constraints that come from your environment and internal constraints, which come from within. Both are important.
An external constraint is a condition that comes from your environment. Let’s consider a pretty trivial example. Suppose your goal is to mow the lawn today. You get ready to start mowing, and you notice that it’s pouring outside, rain is just coming down in buckets. This is an external constraint. Regardless of whether the constraint is external or internal, when you’re pursuing a goal, and you hit a constraint, you basically have three choices: find some way around the constraint, change the goal, or abandon the goal. The rain might lead you to just abandon the goal of mowing the lawn (at least for the day). I guess you could put on a raincoat and hat and mow, but that seems like a bad idea. Another approach is to rethink your goal. If you change the goal from “mow the grass” to “do something productive this morning” you have almost innumerable ways that you can pursue the new goal. Or maybe you look at the weather forecast and see sunny skies forecast for tomorrow, so you change your goal to “mow the grass tomorrow.” Either way, you’ve effectively worked around the constraint by changing your goal. So you can abandon the goal, seek what is called an affordance, putting on a raincoat in this case, to work around the constraint, or you can change your goal. All three approaches can be effective, depending on the situation, but I want you to remember the last one … changing the goal. I’ll come back to this later. Now I realize this is a pretty trivial example. But, we can apply the same logic to more meaningful goals, such as career or other life goals.
Internal constraints are limitations that come from within. Physical constraints can be important, but I’m going to focus on mental constraints. Much of what robs us of our sense of control comes from the way we think about things. Look, there are thousands of things that you can’t really do, or that I can’t really do. We all have our limitations. So, the trick isn’t to deny the limitations, it’s to choose not to focus on them, but to turn your mind to your possibilities. This is really important. To pretend you face no limitations (internal or external) is a sure way to experience ongoing disappointment. Instead, recognize your limitations, then turn attention to the ways around those limitations. You have lots of limitations, but you have even more possibilities. I’ll tell you a quick, kind of funny story to illustrate this thinking with a trivial example. When my wife Tracy and I were dating and starting to get serious, she asked me if I was handy. (and I am not.) I replied, “No, but I can write a check.” I do have limitations when it comes to fixing things around the house, but I don’t focus on that, I focus on the fact that I’m fortunate enough to be able to hire those more able than I. So, when something breaks, my goal is to get it fixed, not to fix it myself. I see the possibilities, not the limitations.
Sometimes mental constraints are the result of your mindset. A mindset is a relatively fixed attitude or mental disposition that predetermines your responses and interpretations of situations. We all have mindsets about various aspects of our lives. One that’s received a lot of attention lately is the mindset about whether or not someone thinks they can grow and improve. Those with a growth mindset do, those with a fixed mindset do not. (There’s a lot more to it than this, but this is the basic idea.) A fixed mindset is a limitation to growth. Why put effort into growing if you can’t grow? My little example of not being handy represents a fixed mindset. My “I’m not handy” remark implies a fixed mindset around being handy. If I thought “I’m not handy, but I can learn to be,” I would have a growth mindset, and we probably would have saved a bunch of money over the years. This is actually kind of interesting. Suppose I could learn to fix things around the house (and I probably really could, I don't know). That would open up a possibility … learning to be handy. But, there’s another possibility … putting effort into my profession to ensure that I can afford to hire repair people. I chose the latter, but both are viable possibilities. This little example illustrates an important point. Choosing where to put effort is under my control. I chose from among multiple possibilities, which is an exercise of autonomy, which enhances my flourishing. It also draws attention away from the limitation and to the possibilities. If I focus on not being handy, that reduces autonomy and competence, but seeing two possibilities and choosing one that fits me better does not. See your possibilities, not your limitations.
But how can you get started in seeing your possibilities, not your limitations? I have some ideas … Before getting to those, if you know someone who is feeling like they they’re stuck in life, please consider sharing this episode with them. The easiest way to do that is to direct them to livewellandflourish.com. Also, if you haven’t already done so, you might want to check out the previous article on Taking Control of Your Life, which I mentioned earlier, and Living a Life of Purpose. I’ll put links to those below.
Three (really four) things: Seeing your possibilities
OK, here are three ideas you can put into practice this week that can help you see your possibilities, not your limitations.
First, think carefully about your goals. Constraints are based on some goal -- you’re seeking a goal and a constraint impedes you from progressing towards that goal. So, the goal and the constraint go hand-in-hand. One way to eliminate a constraint is to change your goal to something that’s more under your control. Epictetus said, “You can be invincible, if you never enter a contest where victory is not in under your power.” Make your goal something that IS under your control. Whether people like you isn’t entirely under your control, but being a good person is. So make your goal to be a good person. Lots of people will probably like you too. If not, well, you’re still a good person.
So, when you have trouble seeing the possibilities when faced with constraints, consider changing the goal. Done in the right way, modifying a goal is a very effective way for dealing with constraints. There’s a subtle, but very important aspect to changing your goals. For most aspects of your life, YOU are in charge of the goals you seek. Sure, your boss can impose work goals on you, but for your personal life, your goals are up to you. So, it’s critical to set the right goals. So, pause when you hit a serious roadblocks, consider changing your goal to one that is more under your control. Choose your goals wisely, and there will always be possibilities.
Second, and still on the topic of goals, focus on your big goals, not the little things. Sure, doing the little things leads to the right big things. That’s absolutely true. But, small roadblocks just require small course adjustments. If I can geek out for a second, think of your journey towards your big goals kind of like the Internet. The Internet is designed to have lots of redundant routes from one point to another. If one route is down, an alternate route is taken. Life is kind of like that. It’s pretty common for one route towards a big goal to become blocked, but there are still tons of other routes open to you.
Third, when you face a limitation, train your mind to immediately start thinking about what the possibilities are for moving around the limitation. To quote Epictetus again, “You become what you give your attention to.” William Blake put the same idea slightly differently, “We become what we behold.” At first the shift in mindset will require conscious effort, but over time it will become habit, and then, eventually, part of who you are.
I save the most important idea for last. Yes, I know this is four things. Consider it a little New Year’s bonus. Think deeply about, and never forget your purpose. One of the best things about having a purpose is that there are almost infinite ways to serve that purpose. If my purpose is to help others lead flourishing lives, I can do that in many different ways. Even if, God forbid, I became homeless, I can still pursue that purpose. Unless I’m completely incapacitated, I can live my purpose. That is the ultimate freedom.
Our closing quote comes from Epicurus, (I think I'm saying that right) via Seneca. “It is wrong to live under constraint; but no one is constrained to live under constraint. On all sides lie many short and simple paths to freedom.” Pay attention to the paths to freedom … to the possibilities … and you’ll flourish.
Until next time, be well my friends.
The Live Well and Flourish podcast covers this and other topics that can help you live a flourishing life. Episodes are available at https://www.livewellandflourish.com/ and on all major podcast apps.
If you liked this article, you might want to listen to episode 29, ”Emotional Contagion”
Taking Control of Your Life
Living A Life of Purpose
For a deep dive on what it means to flourish, check out episode 8. “Human Flourishing – Living the Excellent Life.”