On Limits

By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina

IMGP5757 cropped small“Argue for your limits and they will be yours,” my kayak coach said to me one day.

The words surprised me—I hadn’t thought I was “arguing for my limits”. I was just stating the facts. Being realistic. Taking a clear-eyed look at the world and myself.

Or so I thought. But over the days and weeks (and now months and years) following, that phrase kept coming back to me.

Is it actually factual to say something like “I don’t learn visually” or “I  don’t like Brussels sprouts”?

Now, after several decades on this earth, I probably know my traits and characteristics fairly well. And although “disliking Brussels sprouts” is subjective—as all likes and dislikes necessarily are—isn’t it an objective fact that I hold such an opinion?

But as usual, my coach was on to something. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that an apparently simple statement like, “I don’t like Brussels sprouts,” is both incomplete and subtly—but importantly—constraining. It creates a worldview in which I am limited, am limiting myself, because I deny the possibility of future change.

Here’s what I mean. Compare the statement, “I don’t like Brussels sprouts,” with “I haven’t yet discovered a way to prepare Brussels sprouts that I truly enjoy.”

See the difference? Both might be “true” (in that they accurately capture a subjective state), but the second one holds open the possibility of future discovery and change. Not the certainty, but at least the possibility. There’s no guarantee that you’ll ever discover a way to prepare Brussels sprouts that delights your taste buds. But with the second statement, you’re inhabiting a world that implicitly includes that possibility—a possibility that’s foreclosed by the first.

And this example isn’t hypothetical.

DSC_0245 cropped smallAs it so happens, I don’t like Brussels sprouts. Or more accurately, for most of my existence I would have said that. Then Vlad and I discovered the art of roasting vegetables, at high heat with olive oil, garlic, and a bit of salt. It turns out that prepared that way, Brussels sprouts are divine! They’re crunchy, tangy, and sweet-and-bitter, and I can’t get enough of them. Now we eat them two or three times a week, and they’re often the part of the meal I anticipate most—more than the steak, wine, or dessert! (And they’re delicious cold with scrambled eggs in the morning.)

But I never would have discovered that if I’d held rigidly to my belief that I “don’t like Brussels sprouts”—because I never would have bothered to try them again. If I already knew I didn’t like Brussels sprouts, what’s the point?  The only reason to taste them again would be if deep  in my heart of hearts, I believed it might be possible that I’d like them better prepared a different way.

And that’s why it’s so critical for me to keep an open mind. To believe in possibilities, instead of (as my coach put it) arguing for my limits.

My experience with Brussels sprouts got me thinking about my coach’s earlier comment, and about how often, and unthinkingly, I make statements that start with, “I can’t…” and “I don’t…”.

And more importantly, how often I feel (or used to feel) justified in doing so. Part of my self-image is that I’m rational to the point of cynicism. I’m an engineer. I work in a field where one of the greatest dangers is self-delusion. (You don’t want to cross a bridge that the designer hoped would stay up!)

IMGP0058 cropped smallBut even for engineers, there’s a world of difference between the statement, “This material won’t do X,” and “I haven’t yet figured out how to make this material do X.” Maybe you never will figure it out, and maybe your time and energy would be better spent on using a different material. And maybe you’ve discovered a fundamental law of the universe and the material will never, ever, under any circumstances, in any reality, do X.

But it’s a bad idea to assume that your experience thus far reveals the unvarnished truth.

IMGP2195 cropped smallThe real truth is that the world is a bigger, stranger place than any of us imagine (most of the time).  It’s a world of almost infinite possibilities. Yes, our existence in a fixed time and place will be limited—I can’t, at this moment, do 10 chin-ups, nor have I ever been able to do them in my life—but time and place will change. So it’s more correct to say, “I haven’t yet built up the strength to do 10 chin-ups.”

Maybe I will, in future. Or maybe I won’t. But with the second statement, it’s at least possible.

That’s the world I want to live in—a world of possibilities. And in fact, it’s the world I do live in.

After all, I’ve already done many things I thought I couldn’t: Developed a kinesthetic sense. Learned how to roll a kayak.

And yes, learned to love Brussels sprouts.

One’s limits are unknown—The Tao Te Ching

57 responses to “On Limits

  1. That’s the world I want to live in—a world of possibilities. I enjoy positive thinkers and I do everything in my power to escape those who wont /cant embrace change.

    • Johna Till Johnson

      Thanks Ian!! I think you have to feel that way to be a paddler….there’s always something new around the next turn of coastline!

  2. I really have to try the brussel sprouts made your way cause I am one who would say I just don’t like them.
    I enjoyed the world of possibilities. I like your thinking.

    • Johna Till Johnson

      Do try! The recipe is dead-simple:
      * Preheat the oven (with a cookie pan already inside) to 450 degrees. (Very important to have the pan already inside–it does a lot of the initial cooking!)
      * While the oven is heating, chop the ends off the Brussels sprouts and cut them in half. Discard any leaves that fall off during the cutting.
      * Mix the Brussels sprouts in a big bowl with plenty of olive oil (do NOT stint on the olive oil!) salt, pepper, and garlic to taste.
      * When the stove is ready, spread the sprouts on the cookie tin. You should hear a nice satisfying sizzle as they hit the hot metal.
      * Keep it to a single layer. If you have more sprouts than that, plan to roast them in a second batch.
      * Set the timer for 5 minutes. When it goes off, turn the sprouts over for another 5 minutes. (You can go longer if you like).
      * Your goal is to get them crispy brown on at least one side (preferably both). A little char is okay, even. You want them cooked through.
      * Put them back in the bowl you mixed them in (so they can absorb any remaining oil). Salt again, if necessary, and serve.

  3. great post! long ago i could do chin-ups… it would be funny to attempt ‘one’ and if so, the next day two… or if not, keep trying each day for one!!
    thanks for the suggestion, coach!
    the brussel sprouts sound wonderful!

    • Johna Till Johnson

      They say (whoever “they” is :-) that you can work up to a chin-up by doing bent-arm hangs. I’ve just joined a new gym (well, a very old gym but it’s new to me) that has one of those machines that allow you to offset your weight. I’ll see how it goes!

      • ha! i don’t know where the closest gym would be here in ecuador! probably four hours away in a larger city!

        my gymn is a wheelbarrow! i actually love shoveling and moving soil, gravel, etc while landscaping or working on drive lanes. i challenge myself, and i know that i’m doing load-bearing exercise so important for my bones!

        long ago i was strong from sculling boats and riding horses. sculling boats.. hmmmmm!

        have a good day and a good week! z

        • Johna Till Johnson

          Am doing so, Z, and you too! As for wheelbarrows–great “old school” way to keep fit. Maybe you can find a tree branch for chin-ups?

          And there’s always cartwheels through a meadow… Lately I’ve been seized by the desire to re-learn cartwheels. I never did them particularly well, but enjoyed them.

          I’ve read that the clothing designer Betsey Johnson ends every fashion show with a cartwheel–even now that she’s in her 70s!

  4. Wonderful post, Johna, and I love the photo of kayak suspended between sea and sky. Although I still don’t like brussels sprouts, or perhaps I should say I haven’t figured how to eat them without gagging :-)

    • Johna Till Johnson

      Thanks, Lynn! That’s one of my favorite photos, too.
      As for Brussels sprouts, the recipe is above, if you’re interested in trying. If not, it’s a great way to prepare broccoli, cauliflower, asaparagus…. (though we generally skip the garlic for cauliflower and asparagus).
      And who knows… if not roasted, perhaps one day creamed, or mashed, or juiced, or something…. there’s a world of possibilities out there ;-)!

  5. Very insightful article. You’re so right restriction, sometimes from ourselves other’s project them onto us. As one of “Ian Pope” said, I want to live in a world of possibilities.

    • Johna Till Johnson

      Thanks Sherrah! And we do it to ourselves, too… it’s fun to stop and catch yourself (as Lynn did above) whenever you say, “I don’t like” or “I’m not the sort of person who” or “I’m not particularly good at….”

      Surprising how often it happens!

  6. I have never been a fan of those little green things, andI thought I’d never eat broccoli, but my husband found a way to make them a favorite part of my meal. Super post! I never thought in these terms. So positive and limitless. I’m better at hands on than reading instructions, but this I understood. ;-) I’m off to attempt chin ups!

  7. For energy and hydration in the argument for your limits, take chilled, steamed brussel sprouts (tossed with a little olive oil and sea salt), along with you in the kayak. Great post!

    • Johna Till Johnson

      Cheryl… that’s a great idea, actually! We took carrots around Long Island (they didn’t fare so well by the 8th or 9th day). But never thought of bringing the Brussels sprouts along with…Thanks!

  8. And why has WordPress not yet found a way to Fresh Press this post? Initially I misunderstood the phrase of arguing for your limits; I thought it meant pushing out your boundaries to expand them beyond what someone wanted to impose on you rather than drawing your limits in and corralling yourself. I can certainly relate to your (formerly) rational views; rationality and logic have been my longtime companions. But, as you say, they can be quite limiting. You’ve written an excellent essay here. (Now I’m going to write that phrase in chalk on the driveway so the neighbors can mull it over.)

    • Johna Till Johnson

      Thanks LInda! I think Michelle just wants us not to be greedy. Anyway, I’m just happy people read and liked it!

  9. Thanks Johna….Vladimir sent me here..more ‘food’ for ‘thought’ (‘cos I already like Brussel sprouts)

  10. Hmm, I think I know that coach :) That said, the focus on Brussel Sprouts reminds me that place in my nabe has a neat dish where they fry them and then coat them with caramel. So. Good. I don’t know that I’d try sprouts with any recipe if I hadn’t tried those.

  11. I really liked your post and thoughts within. I was going to mention roasting, but you then got to that point and a new flavor was found. I agree with Mad Queen. WP has been putting some really uninteresting Freshly Pressed posts up and this one is very deserving as an example of good and thoughtful.

    • Johna Till Johnson

      Why thank you! Honestly, it’s just nice that so many folks who visited after the Freshly Pressed “Colette” post have stuck around to read some later ones… we have kind of a weird mix of topics on the blog, so it’s gratifying to see the mix appeals to so many people!

  12. My list of things I said I’d never do in my life is getting smaller each year. I’m trying to remember what else I said I’d never do – I may as well start blowing them away on purpose now!

    Great post and a very inspiring post – thanks for sharing from your life!


    • Johna Till Johnson

      Well, hopefully not EVERYTHING you said you’d never do (run down old people in the parking lot, etc. :-). But yes, it’s great to recognize how much of a box we put ourselves in at times–and take joy in tearing down the cardboard walls!

  13. What a great post! I love adding new dimensions to my thinking process. Opening up my world to possibilities I otherwise would have never found.
    Sadly I do have a few food allergies, one being Garlic. (yes Garlic!) However I will always try anything once. I tried Okra once – end of story.

    • Johna Till Johnson


      But please don’t write okra off just yet.

      Yes, I find it disgusting and slimy sauteed… but here are two ways you may enjoy it:
      1. Breaded and deep-fat-fried (I know, not good for you, but oh-so-tasty, particularly with barbecue sauce) and…
      2. Pickled. Yes, pickled! Pickled okra is one of my favorite foods in the world, especially the extra-spicy kind. You can buy in the grocery store, at least in Texas (You may want to check if they add garlic, though. I don’t THINK so, but I would have no reason to check.).Sadly, here in NYC there are few stores that stock it. I have no idea why, but they don’t stock Jimmy Dean sausage or pickled okra up here–are these delicacies unknown to yankees?

      Anyway, glad you liked the post, and thanks for commenting!

      • Never have seen pickled okra here in Upstate/Western NY either. Must be a southern thing. BUT if I ever do I will t r y one – just for you! ;)

        • Johna Till Johnson

          Hooray! And even if you don’t like them.. you’ll have learned something. Okay, something kind of useless (“yep, STILL haven’t found a way to prepare okra that I enjoy.”) But hey, knowledge is power!

  14. I am so busy these days I do not usually read the comments above what I leave but I loved this post as I am sure others did. It is right on point. I just adore them baby cabbages cook just the way you do as well and ofter eat them for breakfast :)

    Have a great week!

  15. Reblogged this on Living and Lovin and commented:
    Need Inspiration open your eyes to the world that surrounds us
    Have a GREAT Day!

  16. Brussels sprouts as a metaphor for keeping an open mind – brilliant!

    • Johna Till Johnson

      Thanks! And I figured Brussels sprouts would be easier for non-paddlers to relate to than some arcane paddling thing…plus which I’m not sure I can remember anything specific about paddling–just that my coach got tired of listening to me explain why I couldn’t do what he was telling me to!

  17. Baked brussels sprouts, kayak rolls – anything’s possible!

  18. Love Brussels sprouts (having them with dinner tonight, in fact), and am crazy about the idea of recognizing how we limit ourselves. I try to pay attention to the “I don’t”‘s and “I can’t”s that come out of my mouth (or at the very least, float through my head) but it would be untrue to say I never succumb to them. Ideas like that are hard to recognize once they’re incorporated into your mental loop. Though that’s what growth is all about. :) Enjoy your sprouts!

  19. Fantastic post … One thing that always annoys me is how we limit ourselves and jump quickly to unfounded ‘truths’ .. And I’m as guilty as others. My son is one of the few game ones who will always try a different food … At least once. Brussel sprouts however had a nasty little wormy surprise when he tried them … The memory leaves a bad taste in his mouth of course :)

    • Johna Till Johnson

      What do you want to bet that your son grows up to love tequila–worm and all? :-)

      Thanks, and thanks for reading and posting!

      And we are ALL guilty… what’s amazing is the number of times a day (an hour, a minute) that we think things like, “I don’t… I can’t.” What really inspired me to write this one was when I responded to a friend, “I’ll never complete a triathlon because I don’t like swimming crawl stroke.”

      Here’s the thing: My friend is in remission from a life-threatening disease… and had recreated herself as an athlete.. and here I am telling her what I can’t (or won’t!?!) do?!?!

      I mean, really.

      And the truth is, I actually LIKE crawl stroke, when I do it correctly (that’s another blog). But come on…. I would let something like that limit the possibility of completing a triathlon in future???!

      Anyway. We all do it.

      Thanks again for reading, and posting.

      • Youre welcome :) and yes knowin a friend in her circumstances would do it sort of wipes out all ‘excuses’ … Saying that … Not at all my cup of tea lol :)

  20. I love this post! Yes, framing your worldview in a different way allows for infinite possibilities. I love that, being open-minded to change, even in the way you think and speak about things. Often when you speak of something it manifests itself in the outcome you speak of. Great and thoughtful stuff. :-)

  21. Brilliant!
    Inspiring, too. (Happily, I already like Brussels sprouts.) You’ve reframed this so cleverly that one is caught before one might intend to be — as I find I tend to cherish my limits.
    You once suggested trying balancing exercises with closed eyes, as you’d found that helpful for some kayaking procedures or exercises. I was going to say, I found I can’t do it. But now after reading your post, I’ll just say, It hasn’t worked for me yet. But who knows?
    Maybe that mantra, one I use a lot — but who knows? — might be adapted to include your sense of widening (unnecessary?) limits.

    • Johna Till Johnson

      Re: balancing exercises.. please, please, please say “I haven’t done it–YET!”.

      A few weeks ago I decided to resurrect a yoga posture called (I think) “the crow”. It involves balancing on your hands, while bracing the inside of your knees against your elbows and lifting your feet off the ground. (Yes, it is fully as complicated as it sounds!). The net effect is that you look something like a pigeon, with your legs forming the poufy wings, and your hands and arms playing the role of the bird’s feet.

      Anyway… I had done this posture successfully as a teenager, and decided to try it (for no reason) as an adult.


      Day 1: Fell over.
      Day 2: Fell over.
      Day 3: Fell over.
      Day 4: Fell over.
      Day 5: Stayed balanced for 1/2 second.
      Day 6: Fell over.
      Day 7: Stayed balanced for 1/2 second.
      Day 8: Fell over
      Day 9: Stayed balanced for 1/2 second.
      Day 10: Stayed balanced for 1 second.
      Day 11: Fell over.
      Day 15: Stayed balanced for 3 seconds.

      Now: Can balance for 15 seconds or more!!!

      All I’m saying is… keep trying!! You never know your limits until you stress them….

  22. May I just add (because I think you/Vlad only know my blog A View from the Woods) that my current post on Touch2Touch is (another, not the first) hommage to you, inspired by your freedom and wisdom: http://touch2touch.wordpress.com/2013/02/24/written-in-the-stars-in-chinese/

    For which as always, many thanks.

  23. Johna Till Johnson

    Channel your inner secret agent, is all I can say! :-) . And Vlad was born in the Year of the Dog—nothing wrong with those qualities, in my humble estimation.

    (For those of you who aren’t following, please check Touch’s link above!).

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