Removing imaginary limitations


Louis Hannegan
Commentary Editor

Dude, I could never swing that.  Way smarter people out there can’t even pull that off.  They’d never choose me.”

We’ve all probably said something similar at some point.  We’re not being pessimists about our abilities, just realists.  We know our limitations.  But do we really?

I can’t speak from personal experience, but I have a hunch that such a view is perhaps not as realistic as we’d like to think.  Oftentimes – perhaps more often than not – we sell ourselves short, inventing imaginary limitations, limitations based on our expectations for ourselves or those of others for us, standards that often fall far short of our actual abilities.

A good friend of my parents comes to mind.  Uncle Jack, as I’ve come to call him, always wanted to be published in a top U.S. newspaper – before graduating college.  I’m not sure why, but he did.  Friends told him it was next to impossible; his family encouraged him – but just as they would a 10-year-old who declared he wanted to be president.  So he didn’t say anything more about it and shelved the idea.

Months passed.  He forgot, and so did others.  Then one morning a piece in The New York Times caught his attention.  Struck with an idea, he dashed off a short letter to the editor and dropped it in the morning post.  He only spent 15 minutes on it and didn’t even have the guts to use his real name.  He knew he wouldn’t be published – the wise many had convinced him so – and he didn’t want to deal with rejection.

A week later, he, and the expectations of others, were proven wrong.  The letter was published – and it was the only one run in response to that article.  Uncle Jack read and re-read those 90 words as if he were a copy editor.  Indeed, they were his – or his pen name’s  words at least.

A little emboldened, he wrote another, this one under his real name.  A second nail in the coffin of imaginary limitations: He was published again – and graduation was still a year off.

Uncle Jack didn’t stop with letters to the editor; he had other dreams as well, such as meeting with recent presidents.  And he accomplished these with similar surprise to himself and to those who had smiled at his goals.

Uncle Jack was no Alexander Hamilton or Abraham Lincoln – but that’s the point.  He was, and is, an ordinary guy, just like you or me, but perhaps with a difference: He knew how to dream, and then work for that dream.  Maybe not all of us can be Uncle Jack, but any one of us could be.

Uncle Jack’s story is a mere family anecdote, but anecdotes are true, even if they’re not “scientific.”  They can teach us much. I think Uncle Jack’s story certainly does.

Law school, grad school, scholarships, jobs, publications – whatever it may be, don’t sell yourself short.  Why not Yale or Harvard or Princeton?  Why not a Rhodes or Fulbright?  Why not The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal?  Someone has to fill those spots, that space.  Why not you?

So think big – bigger than you’re comfortable thinking – and work accordingly.  Don’t buy into the myth of so-called “realism.”  Life undoubtedly does have some real barriers – but many, if not most, are simply imagined.



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