We All Have Limits

Hippocrates, after curing many diseases, himself fell sick and died.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

It’s important to remember that we all have limits. At some point we’re going to find ourselves in a moment where we just can’t give any more of ourselves. We’ll continue to do our best, but our “best” simply won’t be good enough. Our failure will be certain before we even have a chance to change the outcome.

Don’t surrender in these moments. Don’t despair. Failure is just as much a part of life as success. Accept the limitations that bind you, and carry on content in the knowledge that you will nevertheless do your part. This is how you approach failure with both wisdom and grace.

If you find it hard to accept failure as a possible consequence of even the best-lived life, take a moment to reflect on our lives in relation to the passing of time.

We don’t expect our life to go on indefinitely. We accept that at some point our life will end as a natural part of the process of living. Yet, we struggle to apply that same principal of finality (a type of natural fatalism) in other aspects of our life. We try and hold on to this illusion of control, but the truth is we have very little control over anything.

We all have an expiration date. As we age, we can become keenly aware of it. That doesn’t mean we give up. Time is a gift. It allows us to put everything else into a shared perspective. If we have to say goodbye tomorrow, then how do you feel about the day you just lived?

  • Did you share love or spread gossip?
  • Did you help a stranger or buy a latte?
  • Did you make the world a better place?
  • Did you even try?

Perspective can keep us both honest and focused on something other than ourselves. Accept that gift and use it to change the world—build bridges, tear down walls, mend the broken—the point is you can make a difference today even if you can’t fix it all. Famine, disease and poverty won’t disappear overnight. You’re not going to defeat every obstacle you face today, but you can start chipping away at them.

If we broaden our perspective we can apply this same strategy to our struggles, our business problems and those seemingly insurmountable obstacles. There is no real difference between them. Our obstacles aren’t really obstacles, they’re an opportunity to reflect on our limitations and learn how to anticipate and prepare for failure.

It’s okay to feel lost

I set my intention for the day: that this day should be meaningful. Meaningful means, if possible, serve and help others. If not possible, then at least not to harm others. That’s a meaningful day.

Tenzin Gyatso, 14th Dalai Lama

Today was an average day. It was mediocrity and bedlam. It was mundane and unfulfilling. In short, it was a day of reacting to the world and whatever task or disaster landed on my desk. There was no planning involved in any of my actions. I was running through my waking hours on autopilot. This day could have had any date attached to it, and I wouldn’t have been able to distinguish it from any other.

This is not how any of us should live, and at some point, we all come to recognize two important truths.

  1. Our time on this world is limited.
  2. Our life can be taken from us at any moment.

At some point we lost sight of the fact that we are actually in control of how we respond to the world. We may be powerless in the face of death, but our lives can be meaningful. You would think that with this knowledge we would choose to dedicate our short lives toward some lasting communal goal. Instead, we often seem to get trapped in a cruel cycle of consumerism—working more hours to earn more money so that we can buy more things. Our lives become focused on these fleeting moments of pleasure found in the excitement of adding something new to our lives, and we get ensnared in a web of working harder to pay for things we never actually needed.

  • It’s time to stop trying to buy happiness.

It’s true. The world dictates many things that remain outside of our control. That’s okay, because we get to choose how we respond to those challenges. Recognize that you make the choice to surrender that power to others—to the world, governments, religion, schools, employers, television, social media, marketing campaigns, video games, partners and family. You can choose to change your position at any time. You can find meaning in life and leave behind the expectations of others.

I started my day without a plan to improve myself, my situation or my future. Instead, I was a creature of habit and my morning ran as if on autopilot and it soon escaped me. My day became nothing more than a to do list of mindless tasks from dawn to dusk.

  • I awoke to an alarm clock ringing.
  • I jumped in the shower.
  • I gulped down a cup of coffee.
  • I sat in an hour of traffic as I commuted to the office.

When I finally arrived at work, I jumped from one emergency after another as urgent issues hit me up on my mobile phone, email, office line, instant messenger and visitors stopped by my office. My day wasn’t very meaningful, and I think that is an all too common reality for many of us. Our routines make us reactive rather than proactive. We’re constantly “running late” and going through the motions of “getting ready” when we should be setting aside time to invest in ourselves. In the end it can feel meaningless. We’re doing the same things over and over again and we’re getting nowhere.

I’ve found that one of the easiest ways to find purpose and personal direction in life is to shift your focus from yourself to others. We can change our point of focus in an instant. We can stop hiding behind our electronic screens and begin to see the difficulties others face in the world. You’ll be surprised how quickly your actions to help others can make a difference in how you feel about your own life.

I look back at Gyatso’s words and there’s this moment of clarity. It’s like there’s this silent partner in my head who finally jumps up from his desk and says “That’s it! That’s how you do it!”

  • A meaningful existence is framed by our actions toward others.

We cannot serve meaningful lives when our focus is only self-serving. That’s a significant shift from the 21st century obsession with “Success.” The truth is we cannot control what the world throws our way. As long as we learn from our mistakes and choose the best response available to circumstances outside of our control, there’s no point in obsessing over misfortune or failure.

  • It’s okay to fail.
  • It’s fine to mess up.
  • It’s going to be alright if you have a bad day.

All this means is that stuff just happens in life. We have to rise to the occasion and choose to respond better, kinder and wiser to these situations than others may act toward us. If we don’t work on improving our responses to these situations, all we can hope to contribute to the world is more anger, resentment and frustration for the next generation.