Today’s topic is something that I’ve talked a lot about – pushing your limits. I’ve talked about this a thousand times in various interviews, but I’ve never written it down anywhere on the site. Today, that changes.
Buckle up – this one’s a doozy.
How To Push Your Limits – The Power of Reference Points
5 Years ago, when I first decided to stop settling for the “possible” and try pushing my limits, I didn’t think I could do anything.
I was broke, living in my parents basement, couldn’t get a job at Starbucks, and my entire sense of ability was shattered.
When I first wanted to start doing the “impossible” – everything seemed impossible.
That’s why the very first thing that I ever did when I started this blog was run an indoor triathlon.
It wasn’t even a standard distance race. It was an indoor race for distance – 10 minute swim, 30 minute bike, 20 minute run.
The most likely outcome was death.
I figured that at least with the indoor triathlon, I had less of a chance of drowning than if I tried to do one in open water (you can stand up in a pool).
I had no sense of my capability. I had no sense of possibility. I had no idea if I could do it or not.
I showed up with my mom (no joke) and nervously waited for our heat to start.
When the race started, I finally decided to just jump in and go.
I don’t remember my time or distances covered that day, but I do remember one thing – I did it.
I remember very vividly at the end of the race, something happened in my mind.
Until I jumped in the pool, I had LITERALLY thought it was IMPOSSIBLE for me to run a triathlon.
Even while I was doing it, I thought somewhere in the back of my mind that I was going to die at some point.
When I finished the race, I realized something.
The race WASN’T impossible.
In fact, I had just done it!
Even if I wanted to delude myself into thinking I didn’t, there was a sheet of paper on the wall that listed my distances covered.
It was a matter of historical record.
It was done. I had done it. Something that seemed impossible as recent as that morning, suddenly wasn’t.
And I started to think.
For a long, long time – over a year in fact, I thought that this stupid thing, this indoor triathlon, was impossible, BUT I just did it.
If both those statements are true, then what else do I currently think is impossible, that, if I trained for and worked at, I might actually be able to do?
It’s always impossible until it’s done. – Nelson Mandela
So I started to get a bit more ambitious, train a bit more, and take aim at bigger goals.
I ran an actual sprint triathlon. I ran an Olympic triathlon.
I ran a half Ironman. Then I started running races – a 5k, a 10k, a half marathon, a marathon, an ultra marathon.
Every race I did served as a reference point.
My sense of my own ability didn’t improve drastically at first, but what did happen was that I got a reference point. A factual point in time that was undeniable. A historical point that I could look to and say “I did that.”
Even if I didn’t believe I could run a sprint triathlon at any point in time, I also knew that I had that EXACT SAME ATTITUDE with an indoor triathlon and I had just done it – the paper was on the wall! It was real. And it was possible.
And despite my shattered sense of self at that point in time, I could use it as a reference point to take the next step and attempt a sprint triathlon – even though I was scared out of my mind.
This happened with blogging too.
Table of Contents
Everything seems impossible until you see someone actually do it.
And they were successful – really successful!
But it was obvious that they were going to be successful. Chris has a billion frequent flier miles (approximately) and Colin’s hair has its own modeling contract.
They were inspirations, but it wasn’t until I read Sean’s story that I felt like I could do it too.
I could relate to Sean – he was just a year or so ahead of me and closer to me in his entrepreneurial story – and more importantly – I got to see him do it – right in front of my eyes.. He started blogging about a year earlier than me and I read his site from the very beginning – so I knew it was real. He was figuring it all out too – literally, some of his first blog posts are about Happy Hours in Portland.
When I saw him run off to Thailand and make it actually WORK – I started to realize that maybe it was possible for me too.
Chris & Colin could be inspirations, but they were almost too far ahead for me to actually believe that it was possible enough for me to take action.
When I saw that someone could figure it out, I realized that I could too.
Roger Bannister and The 4 Minute Mile
I’ve written about Roger Bannister before, but the 4 minute mile was once untouchable.
It couldn’t be done – it was impossible.
Until Roger Bannister did it.
Then, all of a sudden, there was a reference point.
46 days later someone else did it too.
All of human history – it was impossible. Then, all of a sudden, it wasn’t, and people started doing it left and right.
In fact, the four minute mile has been broken by a ton of people now and is the “standard” for most mid-distance runners.
How does something go from “impossible” to the “standard” in a little over 50 years?
What Are Reference Points?
Reference points are jumping off points that allow you to spring from one accomplishment to the next.
Just like swimmers flip turn to kick off the wall and give themselves an extra boost, a reference point is a solid surface you can push off of to launch you towards your next objectives.
How To Use Reference Points To Leap Frog Your Accomplishments
You Gotta Start Small
When he broke the 4 minute barrier, Roger Bannister didn’t break it by much. He squeaked by with less than a second to spare.
0.6 seconds. Not much, but enough to make a dent.
Over the last 50 years, the mile record has dropped 17 seconds – each record getting slightly faster than the last.
But it wouldn’t have happened if someone first didn’t break the 4 minute mark.
The first thing that I ever did on this site was run an indoor triathlon.
I don’t care if it sounds stupid (which it does), because it’s the truth.
I’ve talked to people who’ve built blogs and burned them to the ground.
I’ve talked to people who’ve gone back and edited their old posts because they didn’t like them, were embarrassed by them, or thought they didn’t represent them anymore.
I’ve made a decision to leave up all the posts because they serve as individual reference points to the things I did at certain times.
The indoor triathlon story still makes me laugh (I legitimately was a little worried about dying), but I leave it up because it’s a reminder to me of where I was.
I’m not the same Joel that did that race. I’ve used the cumulative experiences from the various races, events, and experiences I’ve had to improve until I don’t even recognize myself anymore.
But that wouldn’t have happened if I wasn’t willing to start small.
Find Hard Data
This is why races are great. They give you hard data that doesn’t lie and is readily available.
If you’re not into racing, tracking your lifting numbers or something else over time will serve the same purpose.
The point is to find hard data, facts, that lie outside of your head, do not change, and are indisputable.
If you don’t track anything, you’ll never be able to see whether or not you’re improving. You won’t be able to measure anything or create concrete reference points.
If you find yourself running a marathon and getting tired at mile 18, but you don’t have any hard data, it can be really easy to convince yourself that you should slow down, give up, or stop trying.
However, if you bring up the facts and remind yourself that you’ve done 20 to 22 miles in training and that you’re supposed to feel tired – you stand a much greater chance of pulling it together and finishing the race.
If you don’t have data, your entire outcome will be subjugated to whatever story your mind is currently telling your body.
Get hard facts. They don’t lie. Then, when your mind starts talking to your body, you can shut it up with data.
Physical Experiences Work Like A Charm
I don’t have anything against mental exercises per se, but I think the best way to train your mind is to train your body.
It’s by far the most effective way I’ve found to tap into the mental side of life – because it fuses the intangible experiences of the mental state with the very tangible, burning sensations of the physical.
You might not remember what it’s like to push yourself mentally through a tough problem-solving issue – but you will remember the searing of your burning lungs at mile 22 of a marathon.
You might not remember how tough it was to work through an emotional relationship issue, but you will remember feeling like you want to yack after a tough sprint session.
This is why I talk so much about Cold Shower Therapy. It’s easy to sit on clouds, post inspirational images on Instagram, and talk about how you should
Do one thing every day that scares you.
Growth begins at the edge of your comfort zone.
If I had a nickel for every time one of those was posted on Instagram, I’d change my last name to “Z”.
Most people love to TALK about becoming uncomfortable, but they will still resist it with their entire person.
Cold Shower Therapy FORCES you to sit in the sense of being uncomfortable – for 5 minutes – and get okay with the fact that being uncomfortable is just a sensation. It’s just a feeling and it will go away.
It’s one thing to post inspirational “comfort zone growth” images on Instagram. It’s another to actually do it. The person who’s character has been formed in the crucible of discomfort is a much different person than the one posting about it on their favorite social media profile.
The goal is not to omit one in favor of the other, but to create the mental fortitude you need for pure mental activities through the crucible of an intense physical experience.
Get A Witness
If you do a limit-pushing activity, do it with someone – or at least get someone to watch.
That way, if you ever have a doubt that it actually happened or that maybe you just had an elaborate dream – you can bring in the other person as a corroborating witness.
This might sound crazy, but it works.
Create An Impossible List
Okay, I’m biased here, but in a very real way, the impossible list is a living series of reference points. Every time I do something I’ve never done, it expands my view of what is actually possible and I push myself to go even further.
Each item is a reference point that pushes me onward.
That’s the fundamental difference between an impossible list and a bucket list. Instead of getting smaller over time (as you do more things), the Impossible List gets BIGGER. It expands as each impossible item becomes a reference point – as it goes from “impossible” to “done.”
Write It Down
Even if you don’t make an impossible list, write down what you accomplish. Having a written record is the easiest way to track reference points.
No matter how much my inner head trash wanted to say “no you can’t do that” – I’d respond with “The paper is on the wall. I did it whether you want to admit it or not.”
You can talk all you want about a 4 minute mile being “impossible” but the truth is that someone out there has DONE IT.
It’s a matter of historical record.
If you’re using a Mac, I recommend a program like Day One to journal on a regular basis. A regular notebook works well for this too. If you’re doing races, use something like Athlinks to track your progress & work over time.
Wrapping Things Up
If you’re focused on pushing your limits, it’s tempting to try to do it all once.
Instead, harness the power of reference points, push your limits a little bit at a time, and use your new reference points to catapult you to the next level. Pretty soon you just might find yourself doing something impossible.
Go do it.