Of the many pieces of sage advice passed on to your eager, young mind, this is probably the most oft repeated. "Don't limit yourself." Why is it perceived by so many as a means to success? Likely, it's born out of the regret many people feel for having missed out on something in their own lives. We've all been at a crossroads where we had to weigh the pros and cons of each decision and "choose wisely". Some people have regrets about these choices and urge young ones to avoid the same mistake.
Here already we can start to see a problem. The intentions are good, but the motivation is selfish. If the advice comes from a context of insecurity in one's current path in life, it is, at best, misguided. It could be especially problematic when, for example, parents push their children to do things they don't really want to do. This is a good way to kindle resentment.
Further, hearing this advice too much can paralyze you. If given too many options, it becomes difficult to make meaningful choices and find focus. In this way, the very act of living without limits becomes its own barrier. Following all paths will quickly lead to burnout, and eventually, you'll become conditioned to avoid the choices altogether. Indeed, this is quite the opposite intention of the advice giver.
When limits are bad
Okay, so you should always limit yourself, right? Wrong.
The fundamental issue is the difference between unconscious limitation and purposeful limitation.
If you avoid an opportunity because of fear or doubt, that is an unconscious limitation. If you want to start a business selling your art but worry nobody will like it, that is an unconscious limitation. If you want to major in film but doubt you will find work with the degree, that is an unconscious limitation. If you want to learn advanced techniques in your field but fear you're not good enough, that is an unconscious limitation. These limitations have various sources (social conditioning, inexperience), and they keep us from doing what we really want.
Of course, you should try to make reasonable decisions in most cases. If you want to buy video games but don't have enough money for rent, you should probably avoid the games. Not only is the limitation in this case a necessity, but the desire is not of the life-changing variety that most people think of when giving the "no limits" advice.
The idea though is that you should be aware of when your decisions are motivated by fear or doubt.
When limits are good
Then what are good limits? Good limits require the following three things:
- They are created as a sensible and informed choice.
- They are deliberately and consciously set -- not imposed by others.
- They are utilized to achieve a specific goal.
Good limits are based upon reason. A fear of failure is irrational. A desire to better manage your time is sensible. You may be interested in several majors at college, but it would be unreasonable to think you could advance very far in more than one or two at a time. Similarly, it's good to push yourself, but down time is important; a limit on working hours is reasonable. It's especially important to take your own abilities into account. You know yourself. How long can you focus on a task? How difficult is it for you to make progress in multiple endeavors concurrently? Create sensible limits to help you maximize your efficiency.
Good limits are also those which are created intentionally. The limits you haven't formed deliberately are usually the ones that are holding you back for no good reason. Limits are okay as long as they aren't based on someone else's expectations. Don't be afraid to embrace a love of math and science just because you're a girl. At the same time, don't be afraid to set reasonable limits upon yourself. If you know it would be helpful, that's when a limit is a good thing!
And that's really the most important part. A limit should be made to help you achieve a very specific goal. If you are limiting yourself broadly, you probably won't get very far. But as a means to an end, limits are powerful tools. They can bring focus and help you stay on track. If you don't limit yourself in some ways, you can easily burn yourself out while trying to succeed at too many things that have only been vaguely characterized. Start by clearly defining your ambitious goal, set realistic limits that will help you achieve it, and be really amazing at executing the plan.