Before 1954, the common belief was that man was not physically capable of breaking the 4 minute barrier — that man could not run a mile under 4 minutes. It had never been done before. For years, men had attempted to do so and failed.
Then Roger Bannister came along. Under less than favourable conditions, Roger Bannister broke the world record when he clocked the time of 3:59:4. Under less than favourable conditions, he had somehow beaten the odds. Pundits had thought that a certain track would be required with little winds; others thought that it was impossible. Bannister proved them all wrong.
But what’s really worth noting is that Bannister held the record only for a mere 46 days. His closest rival, John Landy, smashed his record soon after. Over the next few years, breaking the four-minute barrier became a common occurrence in the sporting world. Today, the four-minute mile has become the standard for middle-distance runners and has been accomplished by even high school athletes.
Social proof is a powerful phenomenon.
There’s a natural tendency for us to say that we can’t do something when confronted with a huge challenge. We consider all the hurdles that we have to overcome and how much effort that would take. But when someone else has already done it, we no longer question the impossibility of accomplishing the task. We know that it can be done.
The danger lies where there is no such precedent. We think to ourselves that something can’t be done because it has never been done before. It’s either too dangerous, a terrible idea, or flat-out impossible. That’s what most people tell themselves until the task is finally done. Those false limitations then wither away.
Consider what John Landy said in one of his interviews after his performances:
Frankly, I think the four-minute mile is beyond my capabilities. Two seconds may not sound much, but to me, it’s like trying to break through a brick wall. Someone may achieve the four-minute mile the world is wanting so desperately, but I don’t think I can.
Yet, Landy was the first person to break Bannister’s record. This tells us a lot about how our expectations and beliefs can impact our performance. Once Roger Bannister removed that false limit, people started to believe that they too could do the same.
Be wary of the ideas you inherit. Some of them are left unquestioned and stick around for so long that they become invisible scripts. These are insidious thoughts that govern your thinking and behaviour without your knowledge. This is how false limitations are imposed on us.
Reasoning From First Principles
One of the best ways to identify false limitations is to reason from first principles. These are facts that we know to be true. They are indisputable, and cannot be broken down any further.
This requires us to dig deep until we reach the foundational truths of a situation. It involves questioning our assumptions with an open mind and looking for disconfirming evidence. With a foundation of facts, you can improve each little piece which in turn leads to an outcome that is larger than the sum of its parts.
That was the approach Roger Bannister took in his quest for the four-minute mile. Breaking down the mile into four quarters, Bannister spent most of his time training to finish each lap in under 59 seconds. Not only that, he experimented with different resting times to ascertain the optimum time period for his body to adapt and recover.
We call such training methods high-intensity interval training today. It’s nothing new, but that’s because we’ve identified the core principles of peak performance in athletics. If we can run a quarter mile in under a minute and have enough endurance to maintain that pace, it follows that the four-minute mile is doable.
The most innovative minds of each era have done the same. From Thomas Edison to Leonardo Da Vinci, and now Elon Musk, each person has reasoned from first principles to determine whether something can be done. And most of the time, the answer has always been in the affirmative. That’s how we’ve gotten to where we are today.
Most of us play it safe. We don’t aim for the top, instead opting for the middling ground, which we find more reasonable. The chance of failure is significantly lower, and we don’t have to deal with rejection. In other words, we fear failure so much we don’t even begin trying.
Social conditioning is the other major reason why we opt for the middle. We’re guided by what everyone else around us is doing and hence aim for the same targets that appear more attainable than those which require extreme effort. There is solace and security to be found in the majority, but we often fail to see the costs. As Tim Ferriss wrote in The Four Hour Workweek:
“It’s lonely at the top. Ninety-nine percent of people in the world are convinced they are incapable of achieving great things, so they aim for the mediocre. The level of competition is thus fiercest for “realistic” goals, paradoxically making them the most time and energy consuming.”
Aiming for different – if not bigger – goals forces you to do things differently. When your target is different, you can’t look to others for direction. That frees you from social pressure and gives you the freedom to chart your own course. You come to realise that most of the limitations in your life are self-imposed and false.
Your Four-Minute Mile
It takes work to discover which constraints are real and which are self-imposed. Question your assumptions and learn to reason from first principles. That’s the fastest way to identify false limitations.
But the real work lies in overcoming these limitations. Like many other things, the major barrier isn’t an intellectual one, but an emotional one. Our instinct is to fit in and take cues from our social environment. That may have served us well when we were hunter-gatherers, but it’s increasingly clear that it’s no longer the case.
We each have our own four-minute mile race to run. It’s up to us how we complete it.