Where the Limits Lie

“You don’t know where your limits are until you try to do something you can’t do. That’s where your limit is – right there where you quit” (Lazarus Lake)

We all know “you can do anything you put your mind to” is just not true (we do, right, I mean, it’s not even science; it’s not even six sigma away from “somewhere over there was science once”?). But it has always intrigued me the way so many people find it helpful despite its essential message being plain wrong.

This weekend as I hurt my way around the Bathurst Estate during my first timed race (24 hours – main takeaways learned – timed races are head****s; loop races are also head****s; timed loop races are the invention of some embodiment of distilled evil – but kind of cool too), I had spent a lot of time thinking about limits.

I have long thought people who are in some way neurotypical probably find this kind of inspirational fluff quote helpful because they don’t see words literally. They, ahem, literally don’t see that it is nonsense because of the work that words do for them. Sentences have an implicature that they simply don’t for many of the neurodivergent (don’t even go there on the, er, implications for why we as a society don’t even science and why facts are irrelevant in so much discourse). I’m pretty sure that’s true (though I’d love more research – come on, I work in a Linguistics Faculty, I must know someone who wants to do it). But it’s not the whole picture.

More of the picture probably comes from the fact that those of us who spend our lives pushing the limiter because of our neurology or mental ill health do more of what I was doing – thinking about our limits. When you run up against thigs you can’t do every hour of every day, you end up doing a lot of self-interrogation about it the way that many people who seem if not to drift through life at least to have a cruise control button that means they can do things like hold a conversation or eat a meal without touching a limit simply do not.

This is what I identified as at least a framework for these thoughts as I lay under the stars in 4 layers and my orange cheap as chips blanket bag contemplating why the reason I was unable to go out on another lap was the endless well-wishing of those who passed me (this is another problem with loop races. In a point to point ultra you at some stage, unless you run really erratically, find your place. And once you do so you can stay there, alone with your thoughts and concentration in a state of endless flow for hours at a time. In a loop race that doesn’t happen. Those quicker than you will always be coming past; those slower than you will always be appearing on the horizon, and with each comes an agonizing decision about interaction that tears you away from your thoughts, wrecks any chance of running your best, and drains your battery constantly to zero):

There are at least two axes of limit and they can be endlessly arranged. Making progress in any field depends, at a minimum, on accurately understanding where each limitation you encounter fits on each axis. Those axes are

  • Hard – soft. We are all, surely, familiar with this. Even those who find “you can do anything you put your mind to” helpful understand (surely?) it is not literally true. Hard limits are, for ease of talking, the thing that make the first part of the statement “you can do anything” untrue. I will never be the under 12 10k Nordic skiing champion of Kazakhstan. I will never be the under 12 anything. Because I am 46. My age is a hard limit. I will also never be able to run as fast as the fastest cheetah. My physiology is a hard limit. But “this is how fast I am right now” is a soft limit. I know (unlike, say, a 30-something Olympic athlete who has trained to the brink of collapse all their life) that with training I can be faster. Soft limits are what we need to hunt out, because they are the ones that contain the plasticity that training can push. But we equally need to sniff out hard limits because finding them means we won’t spend time training something we cannot change.
  • Internal – external. Those of us in the disabled community are very familiar with this distinction. In some ways it is another way of framing the medical-social model discussion. It is really important that we understand which of our soft limits has to do with something about us, and which js to do with something outside us. Because that will show us where to focus our efforts. A banal example is that how fast I can run 100 metres is in part limited by how much training I have done (internal) and in part limited by my access to equipment (external).

External barriers are often soft. They can be changed. But we often underestimate how difficult that change is to implement. Take those well-meaning runners encouraging me as they pass me in the night. First there is the question of whether they represent an internal or external boundary. Again, this gets a lot of thought in the circles I am part of. The tl;dr is this – there are many mental health conditions that could make this an internal limit, and if it is then it may be susceptible to the kind of training that something like cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) offers. On the other hand if the cause is neurological, say a sensory processing/overload or communication issue, CBT will never work. The limit is external. But it is still a soft limit. It is changeable. The change would be for people in races not to talk.

And that illustrates the issue nicely. Because although that sounds like a simple adaptation, it is one that is, realistically, never going to be made. It’s the same in the workplace – it might be reasonable for me to request my colleagues don’t tell me about their family holidays if they see me in the corridor, but because of how most of society works (yes, “how it is” is not the measure of whether something is acceptable, but it’s an indicator of where to funnel your limited resources) it’s never going to happen that workspaces ban people swapping stories in the corridors (not for positive reasons anyway, and I for one would rather not live in a world governed by Amazon’s productivity dogma). There are ways in which race directors could make races easier for folks like me that would be worth me thinking about – handing out leaflets to marshalls saying “we have some neurodivergent runners with us today; if someone doesn’t reply to you please don’t think they’re rude (it says a lot about people’s own rudeness or ignorance that they would rather assume someone’s action is down to rudeness than a valid reason, doesn’t it?) or ungrateful” – and talking to them about. There are other things that would either require a huge campaign with all the resource-intensity that brings or simply won’t happen.

For me there were three real takeaways.

  1. self-knowledge really matters.
  2. internal soft limits are the sweet spot. I think this is why people we often call “privileged” seem to find making progress so easy. Why mottos like “you can do anything” helpful. Most of their limits are soft and internal. Many of them can easily find something holding them back that it is in their power to improve with training they are capable of undertaking. Many of us struggle look through our limitations and find any that fall into this category.
  3. not all soft external limits are equally soft.

My final takeaway is this, and it is really counter-intuitive. The most interesting limits we face, especially those of us who have a lot of them, are our hard limits. Intuition tells us two things:

  • The point of discovering our hard limits is to steer away from them so we can use our resources more effectively.
  • The key to approaching our hard limits is to accept them so we can move on.

I want to suggest that both of these are at least partially wrong.

If you go into it with eyes open, pushing at your hard limits can be incredibly valuable. Not in the “you may discover they are actually soft limits” woo kind of way. That’s just more imprecise language. But because in doing so you will almost certainly bend a whole host of soft limits you didn’t realise you had right out of shape. The key is the eyes open bit. Know that this is a limit you can’t lift (to avoid disappointment) and know the level of resources it will take to attempt it.

Accepting your hard limits sounds wonderful. Actually no it doesn’t. It probably only sounds wonderful to the kind of person who thinks “you can do anything you put your mind to” sounds wonderful. It sounds silly. And the recipe for endless therapy years down the line. Our reaction to our hard limits speaks volumes to the kind of person we want to be, the kind of world we want to live in. I personally refuse to act with acceptance to the fact I can’t end famine. I’m furious about it. And I refuse to be accepting about the things my neurology makes impossible for me. I am fuming about them. I will continue to wake up in the night wanting to scream about them, to fling my fists at the void and tell it to **** off (come on, this is basic Dylan Thomas stuff!!). Anger at the things we cannot change is, far from Francis of Assissi’s assertion (give me Thomas’ rage against the dying light over Francis any time!), not futile at all. It is purposive. It is a declaration of hope, of determination, of commitment, and most of all of humanity. It is meeting the fact that we are broken not with an untruth (“I am not broken after all” or “it is OK to be broken” [not to be mistaken for “I am less because I am broken” – seriously, some people refuse to accept the broken label because they read it as a value judgement – see above ad infinitum about using language properly]) but with outrage, and if you really want to achieve something then outrage is a pretty good fuel for the journey.

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