I was at the gym today doing my final sets of pull-ups. I like to leave my pull-ups for my last workout, because I feel like it is the most challenging exercise I allow myself to do. I like to feel that I pushed myself to my limits before leaving the gym, to feel accomplished and to try to get to the ever so evasive #6 pull-up one day.
I usually can manage an average of five pull ups before my muscles start aching, and I usually take it as a signal to stop before I hurt myself.
I released the bar after five pull ups and was standing around, cooling down and getting ready to tackle my last set of pull ups when I felt a large presence looming behind me.
I turn around to face a man towering over me with biceps the size of my head, his veins bulging and muscles twitching. He was holding what looked like a wooden platform. I felt myself tense up, wondering why he was standing there looking at me.
Had he run out of weights and decided that I was going to replace his deadlift material? Was he going to bench press me without my consent? My thoughts raced with extreme but very plausible outcomes that made me break out in sweat.
To make matters worse, I saw another man with a similar stature lumbering over. His face was making an expression that you’d see on a silverback gorilla after pummeling a rival gorilla. In other words, he looked like he was looking for a human dumbbell as well.
They gave each other firm handshakes and turned toward me. They came closer with the wooden platform, and I instinctively took a step back. I was ready to submit to them, to relinquish my identity as a human being and become the 150 lb. barbell they sought me to become. I closed my eyes and smiled as I realized the purpose of my life — Ah, I see… I was meant to become gym equipment.
I was nearing enlightenment, becoming one with the universe and feeling my feet lift off the ground, until one of them smiled and pointed at the pull up bar.
“You mind if we use this together?”
I blinked for a few seconds, recovering from my trance and returning to the material world, and managed to nod.
The man (let’s call him Leonidas) holding the wooden platform placed it on the ground below the pull up bar, steadied himself on top of it, and grabbed the handles like his life depended on them.
Then he proceeded to cross his legs and ready himself in a mid-air hanging position. His friend (let’s call him Xerxes) used both of his palms to assist his crossed legs — both for support and balance.
With a war cry capable of rallying 300 men to fight off the Persians in the battle of Thermopylae, Leonidas started his pull-ups with ferocity, concentration and determination. He was fighting the earth’s gravitational pull as well as his own body weight, and he was winning. I felt something primal awaken within me as I was watching Leonidas. I could see that he was straining to get past the 20 mark. Xerxes, also feeling the primal instinct, shouted encouraging words and assisted Leonidas with his hands. Leonidas’s face displayed great strain and his muscles were shaking from fatigue, but he managed to break the invisible boundary that was trying to inhibit his growth. He finally allowed himself to drop from the pull up bars, onto the platform, and without rest got into position to assist Xerxes in his pull ups. I watched this process in awe play out multiple times — they continued to repeat the cycle without rest for another set of 20 pull ups, and then they acknowledged me standing in the back.
“We’re going to rest for now. It’s your turn.”
With adrenaline pumping, I silently walked up the platform and tried to emulate Leonidas’s techniques. I gripped the handle bars as hard as I could, and crossed my legs together as hard as I could. With a deep breath and a calm mind, I pulled myself up for the first pull up.
Immediately after the 4th pull-up, I knew I was approaching the end. My weakness would bring shame to this small tribe that I had invited myself into without them knowing. I would fail my brothers, and they would chuckle and walk away, leaving me as I fell from the pull up bars to my meta-physical death.
I stayed in the air, hanging from the handles, trying to muster up the strength for a final pull-up. I tried to encourage myself by breathing slowly and thinking positive thoughts. But I knew that Leonidas and Xerxes, the brothers I had known for the last 5 minutes, were behind me, judging me, watching to see if I’d live up to their expectations or fail. The pressure was becoming too much. I felt my fingers slip, one by one, as I prepared to land back onto the wooden platform and silently walk out of the gym into the sunset, never looking back and disappearing to another country — I could never return.
“Goodbye, cruel world.” I thought as I felt my fingers relinquish the bar.
As I felt myself coming down, a new unsuspected and uplifting force caught my crossed feet before they hit the platform. I felt myself gripping the handle bars again in surprise, and I looked back. It was Xerxes with his signature silverback gorilla expression on his face.
“Come on. You don’t stop here. Give me 5 more — I got you.”
I stared at him in disbelief, and then I glanced over to Leonidas. His burning gaze told me the same thing Xerxes had said. He nodded and I turned back, feeling revitalized but still hesitant of my own capabilities.
“Five more pull-ups? I feel like I can’t even do one more. How could I possibly push myself to do five times that amount?”
But there was no turning back. Xerxes had my feet gripped tightly and I knew he wasn’t going to let me go until I finished five more. I took a deep breath, and started my ascent. Every pull-up I completed, I was in pain and felt my muscles threatening to tear. But each time I went up, I felt the support of Xerxes’s hands and I was able to complete something I never thought I could.
Before I knew it, I was on the last pull-up, and I came to the realization that I had never been able to push myself this far before. I came to realize that, all this time, I thought I was pushing myself to the limit by only doing five pull-ups and quitting when I started to feel a bit of strain, when in reality I was giving up right when I started to test my limits.
With a strain that I haven’t felt in the entirety of my few months at the gym, I finished my fifth pull-up. I felt exhausted but I knew I had a huge smile on my face as I faced Xerxes. He smiled back and extended his hand toward me. He said nothing, but I felt that he was trying to relay this message with his eyes.
“I knew you could do it. You have to overcome your limits. Keep testing yourself and embrace the pain and discomfort.”
Then he turned to start his next set of pull-ups while Leonidas stepped in to support him. They went right back into the exercise, while I stood there having an epiphany.
I did not want to sweat and feel sore. I did not want to feel pain so I stopped pushing myself. In this moment I realized that the five pull-up limitation that I had placed on myself the entire time was not a physical restraint, but a mental one.
It was a self-imposed limitation.
I was not (and probably would never have been) aware of it until someone pushed me out of my comfort zone.
It made me re-evaluate everything that I do in life. I stop writing when the ideas don’t come naturally. I don’t force myself to be uncomfortable, to be stressed, to truly be challenged by venturing beyond what I know. I stick to writing about the same things and carry the same style, and then I wonder why I am not improving as a writer or amassing large amounts of readers.
We place self-imposed limits on ourselves all the time, and it happens extremely quickly. We look at a famous painting and stare at it in awe, and instead of being inspired and feeling like we could create something as beautiful as the picture before us, we immediately limit ourselves and tell ourselves the delicious lie.
“There’s no way I could do anything even remotely close to that.”
And why not tell yourself this? It’s easy. It removes responsibility, it removes the discomfort of knowing that you could be something greater than you are right now, it removes the pain of feeling inadequate compared to something as magnificent as the painting in front of you.
You don’t have to work hard, because you’ve convinced yourself it is impossible to achieve such a level of skill and expertise. You don’t have to risk failure and disappointment because you’ve convinced yourself that you simply cannot and will not be able to create or imagine something so deep and spectacular for other people.
If you always put limit on everything you do, physical or anything else. It will spread into your work and into your life. There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them.
— Bruce Lee
But what if you told yourself you could?
What if you truly believed that you could write that great novel?
What if you shattered the arbitrary limitations that you’ve placed in all parts of your life and you started to live the life as an unstoppable human being?
What if you lived life to the fullest, so that when you look back in your death bed, you could say that you lived with no regrets and lived the best life you could have lived?
Limitations exist in the mind. I’m not saying you should go jump off a bridge tomorrow thinking you could fly or walk into the gym and try to squat 500 pounds. With practice, patience and discipline, you could build yourself up to achieve things that the present you could never imagine.
Instead of thinking “I can’t do this”, why don’t you ask yourself: “Why can’t I do this?”
Stop underestimating yourself and think of yourself as a capable, intelligent and strong human being.
Don’t be fooled by the words “gifted” and “talented”. It only allows us to create more self imposed limits that will prevent us from living the life you want to live. It only spawns excuses that allow you to indulge in your mediocrity.
If everyone has the potential to become a great human being, then you no longer have an excuse to lay back and feel discontent about your life. You no longer have a valid excuse to live the life of a couch potato. Don’t indulge in your laziness — strive to become the best version of yourself.
The path to greatness starts in the mind.
Until you truly set your sights upon a goal and believe that you can get to where you want to go, you will never change and grow.
And until today, I never knew that I could exceed something that I originally believed I couldn’t do. By five times.
So if I could do something as arbitrary as pull-ups five times better than I imagined, what other self-imposed limitations was I living with? I’m excited to find out.
The true artist is not proud: he unfortunately sees that art has no limits; he feels darkly how far he is from the goal, and though he may be admired by others, he is sad not to have reached that point to which his better genius only appears as a distant, guiding sun.
— Ludwig van Beethoven