How We Limit Our Chances For Success, And How We Can Stop

Sometimes when we don’t succeed it’s because we prevented our success in advance. We convince ourselves that the things we might try will fail before we ever try them. We limit our chance of succeeding due to preconceived ideas that something won’t work.


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Limiting yourself is a topic I’ve written about before. I was recently reminded of it after a client let me know he was going to close one of his businesses. It’s not his main business, but one related to it and one that served the same market. We both thought it had potential and could also bring more customers into the main business. Unfortunately it didn’t happen.

Remove Can’t from Your Vocabulary

Nothing is impossible. Those things that seem impossible are simply things we haven’t yet figured out how to make possible.

You might suggest time travel or teleportation or many other things that come from the world of science fiction are impossible and they certainly seem to be given our current understanding of the universe. I don’t believe any are impossible. We can’t envision the possibility given the context of the knowledge we have, but that doesn’t mean there is no possibility.

Keep in mind that not all that long ago flying was considered impossible and yet at this very moment the skies are filled with airplanes carrying passengers from one destination to another. It’s hardly the only thing once thought impossible.

  • Computers
  • The telephone
  • The light bulb
  • Circumnavigating the globe
  • Breaking the sound barrier
  • Going to the moon? Mars?

We have reached the limits of what is possible with computers.
—John Von Neumann (1949)

Nearly every important invention or accomplishment was thought impossible before it became possible. Those people who made the impossible, possible had one thing in common, which was believing it was possible.

There’s a famous quote attributed to Henry Ford. I’ve seen it written a number of ways, though I’m sure you’ll recognize it.

Whether you think that you can, or that you can’t, you are usually right.
—Henry Ford

When you decide in advance something isn’t going to work, you limit any chance it had of working. Believing something will work isn’t a guarantee it will, but it gives you a chance of making it work.

Break Out of Comfort Zones

Recently I talked about shaking things up in my routine and breaking out of my comfort zone. Here’s another quote I’m sure you’re familiar with.

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
—Albert Einstein

I’m not sure that’s really what it means to be insane, but I’m pretty sure if you continue to do the same things in the same way over and over you aren’t likely to get different results.

If you’ve been happy with the results you’re getting, then by all means continue to do what you’re doing. If, however, the results aren’t quite what you’d hoped for, then change is in order.

Comfort zones have a way of limiting us in that they don’t allow us to get different results. They keep us where we are. They usually won’t have us regress, but they tend to limit how we can grow.

Again if you’re satisfied with where you are, then there’s no reason to change, but I’d suggest most of us would like to be more than we are now. Being satisfied is an enemy of progress.

Be Willing to Risk for Reward

It can be scary to take a risk. There’s a potential for loss and most of us prefer not to lose what we have. Limiting risk, limits loss. It also limits gain. Here’s one last quote that I don’t think is attributed to anyone, because it’s so common.

The greater the risk, the greater the reward

I’m not sure that’s 100% accurate as I’ve seen people take some pretty stupid risks where it was hard to see any potential reward, however, I feel confident saying that great rewards usually require great risks.

You have to be willing to take a chance. If you read about some of the more successful people on the planet, you’ll find many of them took chances and failed many times along the way. Successful people tend toward being risk takers.

I’m always struck by some people who join my business forum seeking advice on a business idea. They won’t share the idea out of fear someone will steal it. They spend most of their time and energy trying to protect an idea from being stolen and in the process spend no time or energy developing the idea into something that can be successful.

It’s true if the idea is out there, the possibility exists someone else will see it and work on it and be successful with it. It’s a chance you take, but one you inevitably have to take. In order to start your business you have to release your idea and once it’s out there anyone can copy it.

Most people won’t take an idea until after you’ve proved it can be successful and if you’ve managed to prove that, you shouldn’t have to worry about competition. You’re already ahead of them.

What Could Have Been

Coming back to my client, I can’t help but wonder what could have been. Perhaps he’s right and there isn’t any way to save this business. He certainly knows the business better than I do.

Still I keep thinking back to many suggestions I offered over the years and the many times my suggestions were returned with a “that won’t work, because…”

This particular client has some very good ideas and is willing to try things to improve his business. He also has a way of making up his mind in advance of any information and once made up, little can change his mind.

I won’t go into the specifics of why he thinks this business can’t go forward or any of the things I thought he could have tried over the years. He knows his business better than I ever could. Maybe my suggestions wouldn’t have made a difference. Perhaps this was a case of not having the means to realistically compete.

And yet I can’t help but wonder what might have been and whether or not self imposed limitations are ultimately the reason the business is closing its doors.

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10 comments

  1. I can’t help but nod in agreement when I’m reading through your article.

    Over the last few years, I’ve been thinking about what I wanted to do with my life. I was a finance major, and I was pretty certain I didn’t want to work in a bank, but was repeatedly drawn towards it, probably due to the societal, peer or family pressures.

    In the last 6 months, I took a bold step in my opinion. I started learning about web design and development. I always thought my skills were not good enough, and I can’t get any clients.

    In the past month, I’m trying to do some design work for others. I still feel that I’m not good enough yet since I’ve just started learning a few months ago, but I went on ahead with it and charged extremely cheaply for the experience. I found two people willing to take up the cheap offer ($50USD for the whole website).

    $50 is dirt cheap, but its still better than nothing. I would have tried to work for free if I couldn’t find anyone to take up the offer.

    Can’t is a word we talk ourselves out because there is fear involved. Sometimes its an illusion, sometimes it is real. More often than not, we can.

    • In some ways we have similar career paths. I started out on the road to being an engineer, but decided it wasn’t for me and moved in another direction. It took me awhile to find web design though.

      Never think your skills aren’t good enough. It’s ok to know you need to improve them, but always be confident in what you can do. Just knowing a little bit already means you know more than all your potential clients. Keep in mind something like setting up a basic html page in a code editor is beyond the skills of most people.

      I think when it comes to setting goals what happens is you can never do better than the goal you set. If you think your next client will only pay you $50 then that’s the most you’re going to get. If you think they might pay $100 or $500 you’ll likely get more than $50.

      • Thank you for this great website, and also this (among many others) inspirative and meaningful article. I started exploring the world of front-end development few months ago and I’m pretty much aware of my potential and also very motivated for constantly improving myself. I just wanted you to know that you have a big admirer here in Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as I’m sure you have your readers all round the world. Keep up the good work. :)

        • Thanks Vlastimir. I appreciate the kind words. Cool that you’re aware of your potential. I think too many people aren’t and hold themselves back because of it. Always keep improving yourself. We don’t have to get to the goal overnight, but as long as we keep taking steps toward it, we’ll get there.

          Thanks again.

  2. Hello Steven,

    Reading your post I have remembered that the comfort zone is still my enemy, even if I have tried a lot in the past to exit from it. But, the funny thing, is after you leave a particular comfort zone you end up entering in another one. I think it is a psychological pattern that keeps a human in the safety.
    Those who wanted to progress they adventure themselves.

    • I hear you Alex. Good point about how we all inevitably fall into some comfort zone. I think that’s why it’s so important to be aware of that and at times force yourself out of one even if it means ending up in another.

      Sometimes we have to force change on ourselves in order to end up in a better place.

      • You know it Steven. But there are a lot of people who do not.
        I have forced myself once to leave a very warm zone because I felt stuck. And definitely I would do it again if needed. Even if that would mean that my relatives and friends would think I am crazy, again :)

        • Thanks Alex. I’ll be the first to admit it’s difficult to leave your comfort zone. There’s a reason we fall into them. Sometimes though, you just have to break out of them no matter how difficult, especially if you feel change is in order.

          I’ve had my share of friends and relatives thinking I’m crazy too. :)

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