I’m sure we’re all familiar with the jarring feeling of driving our cars over Texas Gates. Texas Gates or cattleguards are the series of round metal bars laid perpendicular to a pathway covering a dug hole. They are placed to serve as fences keeping animals from moving across a boundary. They are used instead of physical gates in order to allow the free flow of traffic across more regularly used roadways. Cattleguards may be located to demarcate property boundaries private or public or just to control animal movement within an area.
On paved roadways, cattleguards have evolved to become a series of painted lines. This significantly reduces the cost and effort to implement. No hole needs to be dug and no metal bars need to be laid across the ground. The jarring feeling for vehicles crossing the painted Texas Gates is completely eliminated. It’s a win on several levels for us. Somehow, animals see the lines as sufficient barrier. They consider it an obstacle that can’t be crossed. An impregnable barrier that limits them to the constraints that humans have imposed around them.
This approach is taken time and again with animals. In The Procrastination Equation, Piers Steel shares an anecdote from his childhood about going to the zoo. Steel writes, “When I was a child, zoos were made up of cages, not habitats, and animals were truly captive. My father once took me to see the elephants. A mother elephant and child were on display side by side, both of their right hind legs secured to the ground. A large and heavy chain limited the baby, but the mother only had a slender rope. “Why Daddy?” I asked. “Shouldn’t the big chain be around the big elephant?” No, he explained to me, the younger elephant needs the bigger chain because it is still struggling to become free. Eventually, it will accept that the chain won’t break and, like the mother, it will stop trying.”
In a separate example, Martin Lindstrom in his book The Ministry of Common Sense introduces us to The Chicken Cage Syndrome. Lindstrom writes of research where several chickens are raised individually in cages for a period of time. After many months, researchers opened the doors of the cage. They expected to see the chickens happily scamper to explore their newfound freedom. Instead, the chickens sat content within the confines of their cage. Any instinct for exploration had been eviscerated. The devil they knew was better than the strangeness of the outside.
We’re able to train defeat and instill helplessness in animals by imposing barriers which can then be removed but effects held. We see these types of barriers as almost amusing. We consider Texas Gates as a reflection of the obvious fact that humans are much smarter than animals. We aren’t limited by fake fences. We can use our big brains and act on the world. Unfortunately, we’re wrong. We struggle with self-imposed limitations all the time.
A notable example surfaced in 2011 in Massachusetts. In many agricultural communities where corn fields are grown the stalks can reach quite high. Corn stalks can stretch to well over two metres in height. For fun, some farmers may create a corn maze. Or a maze of mais for our French speaking friends. Individuals are encouraged to explore their way through the corn fields. A family was doing just that in a lengthy maze that was well over five miles. After some time in the maze, the family was amazed to find itself lost. They became disoriented and began to panic. Their solution was to call 911 for help. Our fearless first responders leapt into action and were able to rescue the poor family within minutes a mere 25 feet from a road. The point of people playing in these man made mazes is that they can enjoy becoming lost. It is a challenge to navigate our way through these. There should be no risk as the walls of the maze are simply corn stalks. They aren’t walls. They aren’t impenetrable barriers of any kind. They are mostly air. We can walk right through these in any direction we please. We’re only limited by our minds to accept the confines of the corn. Our family that was crippled with confusion amongst corn isn’t notable because they reflect some aberration of human behavior. We’re sadly more like animals in that we allow our brains to be blocked and become blind to barriers that are not real.
Some of us see barriers as a block while others see them as obstacles to be overcome. Of three sons, one of ours has since his earliest days separated himself as being resourceful. This one, long before he was two, was already seeing the bars and rail of his crib as obstacles to overcome. He wasn’t going to sit around wailing and waiting to be rescued. He would take it upon himself to figure out how to get out on his own after waking from a nap. As the Eagles sing in their song, Already Gone, “So oftentimes it happens that we live our lives in chains, and we never even know we have the key.” How is it that some of us live our lives like these lyrics while others need no key as they know no chains?
Sport offers numerous examples of performance peaks that seem set in stone until they’re not. The classic example of running the mile serves as support for the artificiality of “limits.” British runner Roger Bannister broke what had been seen as a physiologically impossible barrier by running the mile in sub four minutes back in 1954. Prior to Bannister’s success, the world record had stood for over nine years. Many pundits confidently declared that humans simply weren’t capable of breaking the four minute barrier. Many believed the limitations. When Bannister broke through setting a world record running the mile in 3:59.4, a new standard was set. What had been declared impossible became possible. The prior record had lasted nine years, whereas Bannister’s record stood for just 46 days. Others followed pace and run sub four minute miles in surprisingly short order. Bannister’s breakthrough being repeated by others wasn’t the result of new shoes being created, dramatic shifts in training, or evolutionary leaps in physiology. Expectations of others shifted when they saw what they had been told was impossible become possible. What these athletes knew to be true changed. But, before the floodgates of others busting through four minutes opened, it was Bannister that refused to accept the ceiling set by others.
Some of us are able to look through what seem to be limits. For others, our brain blockers bubble to the surface in the form of excuses: I don’t have time. I don’t have resources. I don’t have skills. I don’t have enough experience. I don’t have the right credentials. I don’t know what to do. I’m not a math person. I’m not a people person. I can’t talk in public. We view our limitations as fixed and not malleable. Why do we erect fences for ourselves? In The Brave Athlete Simon Marshall offers an answer writing, “To avoid feeling embarrassed, humiliated, and inadequate, we create comfort zones. A comfort zone is simply a psychological fence that we erect around ourselves to protect something that we feel vulnerable about. Comfort zones are a normal adaptive response to keep the inner peace. But make no mistake about it, comfort zones are entirely imaginary. They are made by you, figments of your imagination.” Matthew McConaughey in his autobiography, Greenlights, encourages us to not give away our power. McConaughey writes, “when we mentally give a person, place, or point in time more credit than ourselves, we then create a fictitious ceiling, a restriction, over the expectations we have of our own performance in that moment… Don’t create imaginary constraints.”
Bannister beat back these brain blockers. He was helped by his coach, Franz Stampfl. Stampfl was an Austrian that lived in England. Unfortunately, at the outset of World War II, Austrians weren’t welcomed in England, and Stampfl was deported to Australia. During transit the boat Stampfl was travelling on was hit by a German torpedo and sunk. Stampfl, along with others, was stranded in icy waters awaiting rescue for hours. While scared and freezing in the water, Stampfl decided his life was in his hands. He could choose to succumb or will himself to live. He chose to live, survived, and his ordeal convinced him of the power of the mind in performance. Stampfl refined his coaching based on his experiences. He believed that any athlete with sufficient self-belief could create new records. His training programs became about installing belief as much as imparting technical and tactical guidance.
Too often, purveyors of possibility like Stampfl are pounced upon by the pessimists as being unrealistic. In The Art of Possibility, Rosamund and Benjamin Zander write, “often, the person in the group who articulates the possible is dismissed as a dreamer or as a Pollyanna persisting in a simplistic ‘glass half-full’ kind of optimism. The naysayers pride themselves on their supposed realism. However, it is actually the people who see the glass as ‘half-empty’ who are the ones wedded to a fiction, for ‘emptiness’ and ‘lack,’ like the ‘wall,’ are abstractions of the mind.” They go on to note, “The frames our minds create define—and confine—what we perceive to be possible. Every problem, every dilemma, every dead end we find ourselves facing in life, only appears unsolvable inside a particular frame or point of view. Enlarge the box, or create another frame around the data, and problems vanish, while new opportunities appear.” The frames we build around our problems are like the roofs on our homes. They are both manmade.
Bleed for This was a movie released in 2016 that was based on the story of boxing champion, Vinny Pazienza. Pazienza has several highs and lows in his boxing before suffering a life threatening injury in a car accident. He’s told not only that he won’t fight again but that there’s a real chance he won’t walk. Pazienza refuses to give up his sole passion in life of fighting. He inches his way through his rehabilitation focused on future fights. He is able to come back to not just fight but earn a championship belt against Panamanian legend, Roberto Duran. In the closing scene of the movie, Miles Teller, playing the part of Pazienza, is being interviewed by a sports journalist about his career. The journalist asks Pazienza what the biggest lie he was ever told as a boxer. His response, “It’s not that simple.” She adjusts her question, probing for detail, thinking he dodged her question. Pazienza affirms that’s the biggest lie he was ever told is that it’s not that simple. The reality he suggests is that it is that simple. If every time someone tells you that you can’t do something, you do it, then you’ll achieve unimaginable things. It is exactly that simple. Pazienza learned to not let others define his ceiling for him.
How can we try to be more like Coach Stampfl, Pazienza, and others that believe that our roofs can be raised?
We can work to keep in mind many of the examples sport offers which confirm that records are meant to be broken. Additionally, we can keep close the reality that new ground is being found every day across fields. What was established “fact” in the past has been disproved time and again. We used to believe the earth was flat. We used to believe the sun orbited around the earth. Common wisdom of today becomes the joke of tomorrow. Things we thought were fixed and concrete aren’t. Scientists continue to learn more and more about our bodies. Things like the number and thickness of brain cells was once thought fixed, have now been found to be capable of being altered. Even our autonomic nervous system, that deep part of us that supports us automatically was thought outside our control and fixed. We’re learning now that we can influence it with our actions. Additionally, skeletal structure like our sinus cavities within our skulls were thought to be biologically predetermined. We’re now learning that with good or poor breathing habits, we influence the shape of these structures. What we thought was true, or incapable of change, we learning over and over isn’t. Limitations aren’t set in stone.
Increasing our awareness of the limits of limitations is the starting point. From awareness, we can consider that we’re vulnerable like our animals to having barriers fed to us like the farmers with Texas Gates and livestock. Additionally, we can accept that a vulnerability we each have is to construct ceilings for ourselves in order to protect us from negative feelings. Regardless of how they got there, our roofs are man made. There’s no reason to use a roof as a reason to not do something. We want to guard against being trapped and worse yet putting ourselves in cages. Saying, “I can’t” isn’t constructive, nor is it accurate. It’s defeatist and an excuse. We can try instead to say, “I’m not sure what to do, but I’ll give it a go” or “presently, I struggle with…” in order to pursue a productive perspective of possibility.