5 Ways We Limit Our Impact, and What to Do About It

For you to be here now, trillions of drifting atoms had somehow to assemble in an intricate and intriguingly obliging manner to create you.
— Bill Bryson

These lines from Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything left an imprint on my brain years ago.

Have you ever wondered, “Am I using my short time on earth wisely? When I’m at work — where I devote much of my life — am I being maximized in talent, skill and aptitude?”

I asked myself these questions recently and learned a disturbing truth: the answer was no. I wasn’t. And it was my own fault!

Before looking outward at the organizational culture that cultivates meaningful employee contributions, it’s important to look inward at the constraints we often place on ourselves. Looking in the mirror is always more painful than pointing the finger. It took me some time and reflection, but I finally culled down what I learned into five constraints—which often become traps—that are easy to get stuck stuck living within.

They are:

1. Waiting for permission.
2. Rationalizing to the point of inaction.
3. Comparing.
4. Living in a prison of other people’s expectations.
5. Never letting go of our version of reality.

Let’s look at these five ways we limit our impact.

1. Waiting for permission.

Nobody will give us perfect permission to follow our goals. Ever. Yet we wait. Waiting is simply another form of procrastination. We won’t push ourselves now, but we might tomorrow, or we’ll at least think about it.

Ask yourself: What does “permission” look like? Who must approve or “sign off” before I start adding more value to my company or take more risks? If a name of someone you need permission from just popped into your head, then ask: Why do I give this person so much authority over my future?

Embrace your inner authority and give yourself permission to use your power. Our power resides in the tangled mix of grit, skills, perspective, talents, tenacity and intelligence that make us who we are. (A hat-tip to those atoms.)

2. Rationalizing ourselves into inaction.

Waiting for permission is a form of rationalization. Another one is our mental habit of projecting our thoughts and mindsets onto others.

For example, perhaps you remain quiet during a meeting because, “She will think I’m being brash, he will think I’m stupid, or they will think I’m incapable.”

The uncomfortable truth is that we don’t know what anyone is thinking. Worse, it’s actually pretty arrogant to assume we can predict someone’s thoughts, both present and future. In reality, we’re guessing and projecting onto them who we think they are. In reality, we're projecting who we are and how we think onto them—and that's just wrong on many levels.

A big one I still struggle with: “I’m afraid I’ll be stepping on toes if…”  This is another form of rationalization, one that makes me want to karate kick a plant out of anger because this trap is SO easy to fall into.

There’s no such thing as stepping on someone’s toes if you’re adding value to a mission, focused on achieving a collective goal and are communicating kindly and rationally (i.e. not being an arrogant turd). We often mistaken “stepping on toes” with “infringing on ego” or “tapping into insecurities.”

Those who react explosively or defensively to anyone reaching above and beyond in an attempt to add value are either threatened because of their own insecurities and shortcomings, or simply don’t know how to manage their ego.

You cannot waste your life dancing around someone else’s ego.

You cannot surrender your talents because of someone else’s insecurities.

(Remember how hard those atoms are working to keep you intact.)

3. Comparing.

Comparing ourselves to others and what they’ve achieved — where they are, what opportunities came across their desk — is a black hole of wasted time.

Fall into this easy habit of comparison and prepare yourself for a bitter existence where your own accomplishments suffocate beneath facades of success that don’t actually exist.

Of the many successful people I know, not once have they articulated feelings of elated accomplishment or security in achieving their goals.

Despite the illusive nature of success, we will always compare. The trick is learning how to become self-aware when too much energy is being sucked into that black hole. Once we can identify it, we can start re-training how our brain handles those thoughts. Yes, we can re-train our brain! Our internal monologue and self-talk are critical in helping our brain build this alarm system. Stop being so hard on yourself.

4. Living in a prison of other people’s expectations.

Think you’re not smart enough to understand something? Not sure it’s your “place” to solve that problem? I call bullshit. That's just fear.

If you’re living within the constraints of labels (e.g. analytical type, creative type), titles (Sr. Designer, Project Manager), and adjectives (quiet, social), you’re living in a prison...one that you built yourself (often unknowingly).

You may find yourself muttering the following:

“Nobody expects me to contribute because my role is only [blank].”

“I studied [blank] in school so surely I could never [blank].”

“Why would anyone listen to me, I’m just a [blank].”

We each build our own prison of expectations and limitations, where it's lonely and suffocating. But we can also blow up that prison by reaching into that uncomfortable space of Trying Something New. 

Blow. It. Up.

5. Never letting go of our version of reality.

Reality is tricky. There is no such thing as one reality. We select different data (i.e. information) to formulate and strengthen our beliefs.

When we hold tightly to our own version of reality, we shrink the aperture of what we’re exposed to. We limit what we learn and often become ignorant and stubborn. The ego blinds us from seeing the world through other people’s perspectives, unless, of course, they already share our version of reality, confirming our biases. David Gray, author of Liminal Thinking, describes this as “creating a bubble of self-sealing logic.”

When we surround ourselves only with people who think like us, commiserate with us or feed our world-view, we place immeasurable limitations on what we’re capable of. We become blind to the opportunity in front of us.

No longer is the question whether leaders have a vision. It is whether they choose to see.

The constraints we place on ourselves become traps that limit our impact professionally, robbing industries and organizations of talent and new ideas. Most tragically of all, we rob ourselves. And the biggest constraint ahead of us is time. Why waste it?

The bad news is that atoms are fickle and their time of devotion is fleeting — fleeting indeed.
— Bill Bryson