Three Cases Where “Defying Your Limits” May Be a Super-Bad Idea

I’m a runner. Or at least, I’d like to think so. With the number of hours I’ve spent just running on my own, plus the number of running events I’ve joint, I’m pretty sure I’ve earned the designation.

When you join a race or marathon, you generally get a race kit, which could contain any variety of running-related items. Among the stuff I’ve collected is a lanyard that says “defy your limits”. Now, this is great, motivating stuff for those with a sports mentality. With taglines such as “Impossible is Nothing” or “Just Do It”, sporting goods companies tap into the psyche of their target audience and earn their loyalty through an “I totally get you” kind of social proof. Whether this ends up as a prescription for on top of being a description of their audience’s attitude is anyone’s guess, I suppose.

As we are bombarded with images of successful athletes pushing themselves to an almost self-flagellating degree in order to be the best in their arena, it’s hard to see anything wrong with the “no limits” mindset. However, if one takes a second to think, one will realize that this is not always helpful.

Some Physical Limits Are Real and Unpushable

Let’s start with the obvious: the very reason they are called “limits” is that you could not or should not go past them. Consider what you have to invest when you train: you invest time, money, and energy. There are only 24 hours in a day, and the body needs a certain amount of that for rest and food intake. Obviously, you can’t train if you’re not properly refreshed and fueled up. So basically, “eat food” and “sleep” are some non-negotiables.

Also, you have to accept your own personal physical limits. A heavyset person will probably not have a good chance as a sprinter, just like how a skinny person will probably not do well in Highland games. Short people usually don’t have a good chance of making dunks in the NBA. Of course, you may talk about people who defy the odds and set physical records in spite of physical limitations. I’ve been guilty of seeing a news item about a disabled person running a marathon and telling myself “what’s your excuse?”, and some short basketball players would want to point out players like Spud Webb or Nate Robinson and expect themselves to do as well. However, I’d like to think my comparison is more reasonable: all I care about is that if a person with physical challenges can push himself, so should I. I don’t expect myself to set dunk records because of some exceptions to the rule about short people not dunking.

The problem is that people often don’t remember the basic principle of “ceteris paribus”, meaning “all other things being equal”. So while it might be fair to point out that other people have overcome physical limitations to set records, you shouldn’t expect yourself to do as well as they do because, let’s face it, they may just have won a genetic lottery to get where they are. Not accepting that could lead to serious consequences.

Some Limits Can Be Pushed at Your Risk/Expense

People often admire athletes for their ability to override their pain and their fear. In a stressful, high-pressure situation, we admire those people who, with odds stacked against them, channel the most ruthless, cold-blooded sense of competition they can muster and will themselves to perform beyond limits and pull off a victory. Heart, guts, nerves, backbone, stomach: all parts of the anatomy, all what we expect from a real competitor.

However, pain and fear are there as controls to keep you from acting like a suicidal maniac. In fact, the brain is wired to respond more to negative stimuli than positive stimuli. This is called negativity bias, and this is what allowed many of our loinclothed ancestors to avoid getting killed and make babies. Despite this evolutionary tendency, some people still deviate and develop a higher appetite for risks. They want the rush, the thrill, and the excitement, to the extent that they might get themselves hurt for not much good reason.

And this point is not all about fighting or contact sports. Consider our earlier point that people need rest and food, so you can’t do without it. If you’re a smart aleck, you’d probably ask “How little food and how little sleep can I do without? Maybe I can push it down to two hours’ sleep a day and just one meal to max my training time”. And to you I’d say “Have fun with that, you crazy anorexic insomniac gym junkie”. Like most people, you’d probably train yourself sick, injure yourself, or burn yourself out. You can push the limits, but the more they’re pushed, the more your choice becomes a dangerous tradeoff.

But again, there are exceptions. Consider Randy Couture, whose body basically says F.U. to lactic acid buildup, or crazy/lucky SOB Dean Karnazes, whose body has developed to the point that pounding out a marathon causes it no more stress than walking down a hall:

There are other examples of exceptions, and these should come not just with a “do not try this at home” disclaimer, but also possibly a “try body-swapping with these guys first” disclaimer.

Pushing Some Limits Doesn’t Make You Better

Imagine you’ve got a friend who’s simply insufferable when it comes to running. He talks everyone’s ear off about his training regimen, he always brags about his personal records, and he doesn’t let you forget that you’ve never, not once, gotten a better time than his in an official running event. Wouldn’t you want to shut him up? Wouldn’t you want to do anything possible to get yourself to the point that you can beat him and tell him to go suck an egg?

Not that you haven’t tried: you’ve trained yourself to the limit, you’ve tried different drills and workouts and routes, but you still can’t outdo him. And it’s eating you up.

Some elite athletes, those with an extreme “whatever it takes” mentality, will feel the exact same thing, only much, much worse. And they’ll resort to unethical means to perform better. They’ll do anything to get that edge, whether it’s through performance-enhancing steroids or some other non-training-related enhancement like blood doping:

Bottom line, they resort to dishonest tactics to push their limits. That’s not fair to the fans, that’s not fair to their competitors, and that’s not fair to the sport they’re a part of. And even discounting the moral angle, these methods can also cause significant harm to the user: the side effects of steroids are well-known, and there are also risks associated with blood doping.

So basically, like any type of advice or word of wisdom you encounter, take this with a pinch of salt. Feel free to defy your limits, sure, but consider carefully which hurdles to take on.

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Take things on, whether you need to or not

A few weeks ago, maybe a little more than a month, I lent my girlfriend a book (I have a lot of trouble keeping track of when I lent what or how much to whom, which may eventually take me to a life of vagrancy). She’s slightly upset that she hasn’t made too much progress on it. In fairness to her, it isn’t the usual literary fare she’s accustomed to; it’s dry, slow, and very ponderous to read. I pointed out to her that it’s perfectly all right to give up on the book, that neither I nor anyone else would think any less of her if she were to stop doing something she does not enjoy.

“I have to read it,” she says. “I’ve never been unable to finish a book I started.”

It’s gotten to the point that she has sworn not to buy The Power of Six, a book she actually is looking forward to reading, until she has gotten through the ordeal of reading the one I lent her. Initially, I thought that there was no sense to her “self-flagellation,” as I called it at one point. But then, I started to think: what’s so wrong about daring yourself to do something? What’s so odd about setting a goal and sticking to it until you’ve seen it through?

It’s been a while since I felt that feeling; hearing the odd voices that sing out to me from books that I haven’t read, math problems that I haven’t solved, songs that I haven’t tried singing, and so on. Once upon a time, I was in high school, and I would consider every difficult piece of text I came across as a personal challenge. “This is difficult today, but if I do it often enough, it will become easy.”

One of the books I remember daring myself to read during that time was The Dancing Wu Li Masters, by Gary Zukav. It was a unique book in our school library because it incorporated teachings of Buddhism into a discussion of physics. The idea of a nexus between spirituality and science was so appealing at the time. A decade later, on a whim, I look for an online copy of the book. In the first chapter, there’s a passage that seems salient to my thought for this post:

When I tell my friends that I study physics, they move their heads from side to side, they shake their hands at the wrist, and they whistle, ‘Whew! That’s difficult.’ This universal reaction to the word ‘physics’ is a wall that stands between what physicists do and what most people think they do. There is usually a big difference between the two…

Generally speaking, we have given up trying to understand what physicists (and biologists, etc.) really do. In this we do ourselves a disservice. These people are engaged in extremely interesting adventures that are not that difficult to understand. True, how they do what they do sometimes entails a technical explanation which, if you are not an expert, can produce an involuntary deep sleep. What physicists do, however, is actually quite simple. They wonder what the universe is really made of, how it works, what we are doing in it, and where it is going, if it is going anyplace at all. In short, they do the same things that we do on starry nights when we look up at the vastness of the universe and feel overwhelmed by it and a part of it at the same time. That is what physicists really do, and the clever rascals get paid for doing it.

How many times have we given up on something, thinking that it’s beyond what we can ever understand? Sure, some elements of language seem difficult, and simply pronouncing some words and memorizing some formulas appear to necessitate the possession and use of an abnormally large cerebrum. But really, how many people dismiss their own abilities offhand, thinking that somewhere, someone more qualified than they are and ever will be already knows something, and they can therefore rely on that someone to know? What if we all were thinking that exact same thought, and one day, we realize that all along, everyone thought everyone else already knew, and, in a colossally tragic yet comic case of miscommunication, it turned out that nobody bothered knowing?

Startlingly, as I log on to wordpress to write this post, one of the freshly pressed blog entries concerns a teacher’s distress over how her students give up on a task without even trying very hard. The post itself is here, and if one has the time, I think one would do himself or herself a great service by reading it.

So here I sit, ready to conclude the post, save the draft, shut down the computer and go to sleep. I’ll need adequate rest if I want to take on any challenges for tomorrow.