Challenging Limits – The Strategy for Success

Each child is born with infinite potential. Children have unique talents that are immensely valuable. Yet by the time they grow up, they function at a fraction of their potential. We all do! Have you ever wondered why? According to Arthur Schopenhauer, “Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world.” We transmit this limited vision to our children.


In a popularly cited example, fleas are put in a glass jar. Without a lid they fly out immediately. However, when a lid is placed on the jar, they slowly learn to fly to a height that is lower than the lid. When the lid is now removed, they do not fly out, for they have learnt their limit. We all know of many examples of social and psychological conditioning where individuals and groups learn to conform to limits artificially placed on them by significant people or society. What about the glass ceilings we all face in daily life?


Would any of us keep our precious children in such hypothetical glass jars? After all we want the best for them. We make so many sacrifices to provide our children with the best opportunities. Why would we do such a thing? We do so, because along with having their best interest at heart, we are also very scared. We are scared of lurking unknown dangers, of failure, of what the future holds for them, our limited resources, our lack of information, oh so many things! Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today”.


We often say, don’t do that, you’ll get hurt. Don’t climb trees, you will fall. Don’t get into the water, you could drown. Don’t try new things, don’t take risks, don’t disagree, stick to the tried and tested paths and yet we want our youngsters to show initiative, be courageous, be effective leaders, be innovative and most of all be successful. Really? With all these don’ts, how can they succeed?


Expectation is another powerful tool which can be used to limit or liberate. Rosenthal and Jacobson’s classic experiment proved how teachers’ expectation of their pupils could influence their performance. Students of similar IQs were randomly assigned to different classes but the teachers were told that one group of students had higher IQ than the other. When both these groups were tested after an interval, the group that was reported to have higher IQ performed better. Could this happen in real life too? Do teachers react more positively to children whose parents are professionals than those whose parents are from a lesser economical or academic background? Can this influence their sense of worth? Stereotypes also foster such expectations, whether based on sex, gender, race, ethnicity, age etc. If you are a woman, you can’t be good in Maths, is just one example.


We tell our children to focus on studies, not waste time playing cricket, or painting or singing. Our expectation is that being good in Science and Maths is a passport to a good job. If you can study Engineering or Medicine, you don’t need to worry. Today a few more categories have been added, like Management Education, Software Programming, Chartered Accountancy and more. However, we are not able to keep abreast of the changes. Today engineering is not that prized any more. Many cricket players or singers are very successful. True, not everyone who plays cricket will become a Tendulkar, not everyone who sings will become a Kishori Amonkar or a Lata Mangeshkar, but how can we know until we give someone a chance?


Parents and teachers ultimately have the well-being of the child as their primary focus and yet sometimes their misguided actions result in stunting their growth. Dwarfs are just physically stunted but those who are mentally and emotionally stunted are condemned to live their lives in a glass jar with a tight lid! Curbing a child’s curiosity and imagination is like trimming the roots of a plant as in the art of bonsai. These stunted plants look great but cannot grow to their full sizes. What a colossal waste!


A young student once wrote, “If the sky is the limit, why are we so obsessed with the roof over our heads? What a pertinent question from one on the threshold of life. How many dreams are shattered against the hard rock of making a living, providing for our family? In Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs theory, he argues that unless our lower needs are fulfilled, the higher needs do not emerge. In sequential order they are:
1) Physiological Needs
2) Safety and Security
3) Love and Belonging
4) Self Esteem
5) Self-Actualisation


Why should we not encourage our children to reach up to the level of Self Actualisation where they do things for themselves, not because they are struggling to keep alive but because they are committed to being happy? How many of us go beyond Safety and Security or at the most Belonging? We are always sacrificing our “dreams” on the altar of “practicality”. Rumi says, “You are not just a drop in the ocean, you are the mighty ocean in the drop.” What a powerful concept. Just the thought, that we are the ocean embodied in a human frame, sets us free to explore our possibilities.


A young TED 2016 debutant, Ishita Katyal, presented her views to an august gathering of the world’s brainiest to give children a chance, not when they grow up, but today. They can reach Maslow’s Self Actualisation level even today with just some encouragement. She lives in Pune, is just 10 years old but could fulfil her dream of being a TED speaker. Henry Ford said, “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you are right”. Ishita is a case in point she thought she could, so she did. Our children can, too, if only we let them, like her parents did.


You might ask, so what do we do? Leave our children to grow up without any control, without any guidance, just doing what pleases them? No, of course not. They need our support at every step of the way, at times, even some control. However, we can also encourage them to try unexplored avenues, praise every attempt, seek higher goals and ultimately let them discover their unique talents and strengths.


It makes intuitive sense to challenge limits instead of imposing them. However, today this is backed by extensive research in neuroplasticity that proves that our brain grows in situations of challenge. The good news is that the brain never stops growing. This is contrary to earlier beliefs that our brain achieves maximum potential by adolescence. You can choose to keep stretching and enhancing your brain or to be stagnant and allow it to deteriorate.


Carol Dweck, a professor of Psychology at Stanford University has done path breaking research on the importance of “mind-set” on success. She has demonstrated that those with a “fixed mind-set”, see their abilities as pre-determined and finite hence keep trying to prove themselves and are scared of trying something new. On the other hand, those with a growth mind-set, believe in the power of effort to expand their ability and hence keep challenging themselves. Would it be a surprise that those with growth mind-set are the ones who are more likely to succeed? Even more relevant to us is the finding that praising “effort” instead of “ability,” fosters a “growth mind-set.” So we can change our praise from, “you are so intelligent” to “what a great effort.”


When a plant is a sapling, it requires external support to brace the winds and even a protective barrier so that animals can’t eat it up. However, when it becomes a sturdy tree, it can face any storm. At some stage, these little saplings of ours, our little children, will not need our support and control. But they will always need our encouragement and the confidence we have in them. Relationships that are stifling and limiting soon die out. Those that are free and open live on. Let us set our imaginations and those of our children free and truly make the sky the limit for their aspirations.


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