By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina
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.
As 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!)
But 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.
The 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