Our problem as Americans is that we resist the very idea of limits, regarding limits of all sorts as temporary and regrettable impositions on our lives.  Parker J. Palmer

C an you remember the dot.com crash of 2000? The “irrational exuberance” of investors in the late 90’s led to a string of catastrophic company failures as the dot.com house of cards came crashing down. For those of us in and around some of those companies in the late 1990’s, it was amazing to behold. Money was being invested in myriad business models as the hunger for anything internet-related built to a fever pitch.

The story seemed to be the same for so many: raise an obscene amount of money and then spend all of it on wild offices, super bowl advertising, and almost anything else that defied traditional startup thinking. The sense was that the rules of the market and business had fundamentally changed; a new gold rush had emerged and everyone was determined to cash-in. Then, as quickly as it started, it all ended.

Then, as quickly as it started, it all ended.

Though there were many reasons for the bursting of the dot.com bubble, I mostly remember the unfettered spending of so many companies that raised enormous amounts of money. Perhaps even more detrimental than poor business models or even macro-economic pressures was the over abundance of money for these startups. There were no limits. There was no discipline. Why? Because they had so much funding that they didn’t have to be resourceful or focused. Until they did, and then it was too late.

In America, we are obsessed with our personal freedoms. Nothing angers us faster than someone else trying to constrain us. This fiercely independent streak has served us well and we defend it aggressively. However, like most things, too much of a good thing turns it into a bad thing. The best example of this is with our children. What happens to children with to much freedom? They become spoiled and entitled. They expect to get their way and throw fits when they don’t. As parents, some of our greatest gifts to our kids are the limits we place on them. When we say “no,” we are showing them love by caring enough to do the hard work of disappointing them. Kids thrive within constraints.

In America, we are obsessed with our personal freedoms.

Which brings me to my point: there is power in constraints. Limitations empower us by giving us direction and forcing us to be resourceful. We see this time and again in our personal and professional lives. Many of the best businesses are boot-strapped which forces discipline and focus when they are testing the market and figuring out how to make everything work. The best students work within timelines, material, and structure. The best employees work well with clear expectations and constraints. Is this because they are being told what to do? No, it’s because their constraints give them direction and demand the ingenuity to figure things out within those limits.

Limitations empower us by giving us direction and forcing us to be resourceful.

Properly applied, our limits empower us to do more and be more. Perhaps it is the challenge of being underfunded that pushes us to be more creative. It might be the determination we feel to push back on the rules that drives us to some greater accomplishment. Perhaps it is a more elemental defiance triggered by external constraints that drives us to new heights. Whatever the motivator, our constraints play a key part in enabling us to be our best.

I like to write about pushing our limits (See The Art of Pushing Your Limits) because the world is very adept at reminding us of them. We are very effective at listening to that message and further limiting ourselves by fear and doubt. However, there is power in our constraints as well as opportunity.

…there is power in our constraints as well as opportunity.

The power is in what our limitations require of us: focus, discipline, creativity, grit. The opportunity lies in the fact that, by limiting us in some fashion, our constraints actually help us to be our best. As time goes on, those limitations fade as we grow into the next version of our self and realize that, more than holding us back, they actually freed us to become something more.