Week 43: Vol. 43. Leveraging The Past: Breaking Through Self-Image Boundaries

06 Nov

VOL. 43

“Truth lives, in fact, for the most part on a credit system. Our thoughts and beliefs pass, so long as nothing challenges them, just as bank-notes pass so long as nobody refuses them”


-- Williams James

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There is a powerful scene in the movie “The Truman Show” where Jim Carrey has caught on to his controlled life and is seeking to escape it. The world is watching…

Commandeering a small boat he now seeks to escape—sailing freely until he hits the edge of his world—a painted canvas that looks like sea and sky. His boat stops abruptly, making a small tear in the canvas. He’s bewildered.

Seeing the small tear he recognizes that he is not confined to this space and tears a large hole, large enough for him to emerge. He has, at this moment, entered a new world where all historical beliefs are overturned and re-shuffled… A new reality awaits.

By contrast, I have a quite different story to share with you. It was 1988 and I was attending the Australian Open with my college teammates. We were on the center court watching Mats Wilander (a Swede and one of the world’s best tennis players) compete against an unranked teenager (another Swede) right off the junior circuit. I thought to myself: “Can a teen sensation actually beat (most likely his hero) on center court in a Grand Slam event?” This was something to see.

We watched keenly as this young protégé was tearing the much senior and wiser player apart. I could hardly believe it. The first set came and went to the younger athlete; then the second. Mats was being destroyed. In the third and final set (of straight match play) the teen was winning by two games and was only points from victory—then everything changed.

Amazingly I watched as this young athlete began to tank—even the easiest of shots. He was nervous and shaking. He lost his train of thought and his game fell apart. Mats took the lead in the third and soundly beat him in the fourth and fifth sets. This was a case where the entire match took place—not on the court—but 6 inches between the ears.

I scratched my head… I observed a young athlete with amazing skills clearly out maneuver, out strategize, and outrun the elder champion, until he did the opposite.

But why?

I had seen this before, athletes whose skills and prowess were greater than their self-image allowed. Like elephants and fleas that are easily trained to behave without ever testing their boundaries, we too are governed by the self-limiting beliefs (supported by vivid self-images) that trigger self-imposed limitations where we find comfort and safety.

Like any animal that is shocked when attempting to leave its cage—a term called “Learned Helplessness”—we often acquire limited data about our environments and ourselves and then solidify our physical and mental boundaries. And of course, these boundaries can and do severely hinder flow.

We often speak of peak performers moving beyond their “comfort zone”. This is not only physical, but mental as well. Not only do we need to stretch our technical capacities, but our mental boundaries as well, in order to shatter old self-defined paradigms. To do this is to enter life anew. This is why visualization (Flow Tool # 33) is such a powerful tool and gift. It allows you not only to see yourself breaking through boundaries (a future simulation), but also to look backwards—in your Long Past (LP) in order to re-negotiate with your previous experiences (old data) and re-test your antiquated assumptions.

I’ve seen it a hundred times—children and adults making statements like “I’m not a good swimmer”; “I’m poor at math”; “I can’t speak in public” all because of one or two challenging experiences. This is bad science!

As I’ve been saying to my students for many years: “Go ahead and declare that you’ve hit your personal boundary (in whatever it is), but do so only when you have at least 100 data points” to prove your case. Screw up something 100 times giving full effort and perhaps you can live with that self-knowledge. But I have yet to meet a single person who has even come close to putting their assumptions about themselves and the world to a test. Even 20 times seems to be asking too much.

That fact is, all of us have placed artificial boundaries around ourselves because most of us are poor social scientists. It’s time to think and act differently.

Your personal history is filled with Moments of Performance (MOPs) as I like to call them. If you count these in hours, and you are now exactly 20, you’ve amassed 175,200 of them; if 30: 262,800; if 50: 438,000 and so on. This makes life pretty practical. But it also gives you a lot of data to work with.

As we discussed in Flow Tool #16 (Building Self Confidence), it is one thing to look back and pull from your personal archives the memories that build your self-confidence and ultimately your self-image. It’s yet another thing to challenge dusty old beliefs—ones that don’t deserve the credit that you once gave them.

Like Truman I’m inviting you to bump up against your artificial canvases, to cut through—to tear open if you like, and expand the boundaries from which you allow greater self-expression, knowledge, and performance. This is where and when the flow is released.

For this week’s Flow Tool, I invite you to take this small challenge—identify one or more self-limiting beliefs that are holding you back in some way. Do this using the attached exercise.

With a self-limiting belief written down and “top of mind”, seek to challenge it. Even if you can disconfirm it in some small way, you are chipping away at the walls and boundaries that reside within. And if you feel so bold, disconfirm it all together.

If you think that making a fool of yourself in public would destroy you, then challenge yourself to do something stupid in public. A group of men and I put ourselves to this very test 25 years ago. Our agreement: to drop and do 10 pushups at 12:00 pm no matter where we were and no matter what we were doing—for a week!

I found myself doing pushups in the middle of a busy sidewalk, restaurants, and in other very inconvenient places and circumstances. The result: nobody cared. Anxieties dashed against simple logic. As you probably could guess most people have better things to do than to react to people acting stupid in public. You see it often enough.

Say hello to someone you are afraid of; do something you thought you couldn’t do—and dash these assumptions against hard reality. Confront your fears with logic—not emotion.

So many of the principles and tools we have discussed thus far focus on attention, performance, happiness, excellence—but this one is all about liberation!

Good luck this week and remember that you are neither a flea nor an elephant, which are captives for life. No, you have agency, you can re-negotiate your personal history and chip away, bit-by-bit, at the unfounded beliefs of the past in order to move more confidently towards your dreams that sit right behind the canvas painted with sea and sky!


  • Complete the “Deconstructing Beliefs (Self) exercise.
  • Experience what it means to remove the boundaries that hold you back and seek to renegotiate the beliefs you hold about yourself and the world around you.
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