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Most Limits Exist Only In Our Minds

Learn how to break beyond them
Friday, March 9, 2018, 8:26 PM

Roger Bannister died last week.

Even if you don't recognize his name, you're aware of his legacy: he was the first human to run a mile in under 4 minutes.

It was a mind-blowing feat. Ever since the Ancient Greeks set their sights on attaining this "perfect" goal 3,000 years ago, no runner on the planet had been able to run that fast for that long.

For millennia of sport, breaking the 4-minute barrier was widely regarded as physically impossible.

But Bannister, a busy medical student at the time with often only 30 minutes available to train per day, had an unorthodox view -- one rooted in skepticism of the conventional training techniques and mindset.

He began with the assumption that the 4-minute mile was possible, and then challenged himself to develop a science-based regimen for attaining it.

During a brief lull on the otherwise blustery day of May 6, 1954, Roger Bannister made history by completing the mile-run in 3 minutes 59.4 seconds. The impossible had been achieved.

Photo of Roger Bannister breaking the 4-minute mile

(Bannister crossing the finish line at the Iffley Road track, Oxford)

But what ensued next was equally momentous.

Just a month after Bannister first broke the 4-minute barrier, both he and another runner (John Landy) broke it again. The next year, 3 more runners (all in the same race) followed suit.

By the end of 1957, a total of 16 runners had achieved sub-4-minute mile times.

How could so many people suddenly overcome a challenge that had thwarted the best runners in the world for three millennia? The transition was so immediate and abrupt that it can't be attributed to advancements in technology, training or diet. Yet something changed that enabled this new era for speed.

What changed was Belief.

Prior to Bannister's shocking feat, elite runners just didn't believe it was possible to run that fast.

But once freed from that limiting mindset, those very same athletes found that not only could they match Bannister's record, they could beat it.

Today, 60 years later, over 1,300 people have run the mile in under 4 minutes. The fastest of them completed it in 3 minutes 43.13 seconds (Hicham El Guerrouj, July 7, 1999)

More than simply breaking a record, Roger Bannister's greater legacy was proving to the world that limits are largely set by the mind. When we fail (or more accurately put, fail to try hard enough), it's often because we believe we can't succeed.

Bannister's example showed us that by changing our mindset -- by being open-minded to success -- we can change our universe of potential outcomes. The 'impossible' becomes possible.

Others, before and after Bannister, have validated this to us time and again. Here are but a few of them:

  • Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay summiting Mount Everest, the world's tallest mountain, in 1953
  • Billie Jean King defeating Bobby Riggs in The Battle of the Sexes in 1973, proving women can perform at the same level as men
  • Alan Turing cracking the "unbreakable" Nazi Enigma code during WW2 (and developing the first modern computer in the process)
  • Inexperienced novelist and near-penniless single parent J. K. Rowling in the early 1990s, writing a manuscript in various Scottish coffee shops that would become Harry Potter and ultimately make her a billionaire

Each refused to accept conventionally-defined limits as true. Each started with the belief that success was possible, and that they just needed to find the right path to unlock it.

A Mindset Needed More Today Than Ever

Today's world bombards us with dire headlines and intractable issues that can easily make us feel defeated and powerless. Rather than being retired by the march of progress, in many ways it feels like the limits on our future are multiplying.

Declining opportunity for the 99%, cartel-style rackets controlling much of industry, and an accelerating wealth gap between the elites and the rest of society define our economic situation.

Our political system prioritizes fear, divisiveness and war mongering -- getting precious little accomplished save a continued chipping away at our civil liberties. Social discord is growing in response.

Meanwhile, we're despoiling the natural systems we depend on. The past few decades have seen more mass species die-offs, pollution, climatic shifts, and chronic health epidemics than ever before. Our insatiable exploitation of resources and prioritization of quick profits have become existential threats.

Given the above, it's understandable to feel hopeless; that we're all simply screwed. 

But as Bannister, Hilary, Turing et al have showed us, we have much more control over our destiny than we realize. Even in the face of nation-wide, even planetary, issues like those listed above, we have agency to change our situation for the better.

On the individual level, we work hard here at to surface and showcase models we deem worthy of your consideration. Here are several that have helped many of our readers improve their quality of life today, while simultaneously improving their resilience against any challenges tomorrow may bring:

  • Looking to improve your health and longevity? Learn how nutrition, functional exercise, sleep hygene and stress management are key success ingredients.
  • How can humans grow (more) food by regenerating rather than depleting our soils? No-till farming practices are enabling just that.
  • How can you become better valued and more supported by those around you? Here are a number of community-building steps that work.
  • Want to protect and grow your money? Read this.
  • How can you remain positive, and even thrive, in the face of adversity? By using these psychological strategies.

These are but a few examples of the very real pathways available to each of us to build better futures for ourselves. But to benefit from them, we need to first start with the belief that a better future is indeed possible for us.

If we do, then it becomes simply a math formula. With enough courage, discipline, and hard work, almost any goal is attainable within time.

And make no mistake, the world is in dire need of self-directed saviors. Too much of the population is mindlessly marching along to the status quo, blind to its dangers and unsustainability.

Chris Martenson's "giant canoe" parable captures our predicament well:

Our Giant Canoe

Think of our situation as if humanity were all together in a giant canoe and nearly everybody is paddling as hard as they can.  After all, we’re trying to get somewhere: to improve ourselves, to grow our economy and increase our prosperity. There are goals to be met!

Along the way we’ve convinced ourselves that this canoe is the best one ever built and it cannot fail us. It is the very pinnacle of achievement.  It looks great, and there are creature comforts and pleasant distractions galore.   Food has never been more abundant or easier to obtain, new gadgets keep showing up, and (in theory, at least) you can determine for yourself where you want to sit in the canoe.

The people in the front love being there, as they feel powerful and in control. Ironically, though, it's the few people in the stern who are actually secretly and rather effortlessly steering, but nobody in the rest of the canoe seems to notice or care.

There's only one thing wrong with this canoe. It’s headed for a gigantic waterfall, and if it tips over the lip, very few will survive. It will be like going over Niagara Falls without a barrel.

A few in the canoe have woken up and noticed this. But their protests are limited to either pulling their paddles out of the water and refusing to propel the canoe any faster, or even trying to futilely paddle backwards against the rest of humanity’s combined efforts.

Neither approach is a solution, mind you. But at least for these 'awake' souls, it feels better than paddling mindlessly towards the roaring falls. 

As it stand today, humanity’s canoe is destined to speed right over the edge. Unless we consciously do something about it. Which we could, if we really wanted to.

As there’s nothing preventing us from steering the canoe safely to land, I find this one of the most interesting and fascinating times to be alive. We are currently playing the role of our own destroyer, but the savior role is still there for the choosing.

But what stops us?  What keeps us paddling furiously ahead even as the sound of the roaring falls gets louder and louder?  The answer is at once both very simple and devilishly hard. 

It’s our egos.

To save ourselves from ourselves, we have to begin doing things very, very differently.  Truthfully, the only way we can save ourselves is to shift our consciousness.  

Chris' follow-on report, How To Be, reveals the elements of psychology, neuroscience, behavioral economics and human culture that lie at the root of our self-limiting behavior, yet also hold the keys to our salvation. It explains why to start living differently, we first need to start thinking differently.

There’s an emerging huge body of work here that goes deeply into the 'Being' and Emotional Capital areas of our ongoing efforts to help people live with greater resilience.  We’re talking about real inner change here. If you want things to be different on the outside in your life, the only certain way to go about doing that is to change things on the inside first.

If this line of exploration resonates at all with you, click here to read the 'How To Be' report (free executive summary, enrollment required for full access)

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richcabot's picture
Status: Silver Member (Offline)
Joined: Apr 5 2011
Posts: 149
The argument goes both ways

You could turn the first part of your essay into the perfect argument for the status quo.  This talk about limits is all bunk.  The limits are all in your mind.  We can invent new energy sources, grow food more efficiently, recycle more.  It's the 4 minute mile all over again.

Of course limits really do exist. 

-Casey-'s picture
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Joined: Nov 12 2013
Posts: 69
Too bad

Too bad there’s a whole second half of the article to read, that just sucks. I’m as much of a doomer as anyone but I hope I don’t go out of my way looking for yet more negativity than is already there.   It gets tiresome.

I thought the article was inspirational. I’m old enough to remember how big a deal the four minute mile was. 


New_Life's picture
Status: Silver Member (Online)
Joined: Apr 18 2011
Posts: 233
Growth Mindset

Sure a few on here have read the book by Carol Dweck

She now has focused on improving teaching a Growth Mindset

And here's the updated book.

ezlxq1949's picture
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Joined: Apr 29 2009
Posts: 181
Thanks + correction

Useful and inspiring article.

It is obvious that we need to be mindful of the type of limit that is mainly a mental construct and that which is a real limit. F'rinstance, I have a wonderful device that lets me lift myself off the ground and easily stay aloft, using only my own human strength and power! What is it? A ladder.

I like the kind of positive thinking that uses real science and psychology to deal with problems. I am particularly fond of the kind of thinking that develops and produces benefits for all, not just an elite.

Correction: it was John Landy, not Landry, a fellow citizen much celebrated in my youth. From (dim) memory, he was a bigger deal here than Bannister. How's that for national objectivity!


tahoe1780's picture
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Posts: 1
or, like the government, you

or, like the government, you could just play with the definitions of minute and mile.  :)


Pipyman's picture
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Joined: Apr 24 2011
Posts: 53
Excellent point!


Uncletommy's picture
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Joined: May 4 2014
Posts: 485
But, anyway you slice it. . .

There are limits so enjoy it while you are able:

The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength, labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away. (Psalms 90:10)


skipr's picture
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Joined: Jan 9 2016
Posts: 101
nutrition vs mindset?

I wonder how much the improved nutrition over the previous 100 or so years had to do with breaking the 4 minute mile barrier.  When I was growing up some of the NFL's defensive linemen would now be large linebackers.

Can we finally put an end to that irritating entropy if we just put our minds to it?  Endless growth on a finite planet is now possible if we put our minds to it.  Those "Limits to Growth" people are "mindless."

agitating prop's picture
agitating prop
Status: Platinum Member (Offline)
Joined: May 28 2009
Posts: 857

The hero's myth in capitalist countries revolves around the Horatio Alger rags to riches storyline, most often. This emphasis on the individual triumphing over others to succeed is disproportionate, ignores the deep masculine and undermines the deep feminine.


Community suffers when people live atomized lives based on myths that have become no more than shopworn slogans.  The underlying assumptions that shape our emotional realms  divide us and reduce us down to the ego, flailing about, looking for a fight, anywhere we can find it, in a blighted attempt to win, overcome, gain an edge socially, feel superior, if only for a moment.  We disagree about everything and all the time.  

The changes will come.  People are learning the hard way.  For all the resilience America has displayed in so many fields of endeavour, all that is left is to overcome is themselves.

Chris and Adam provide a template to help, not just to survive but by providing models of behavior grounded in truth and the emphasis they place on community.  












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