Insights From The Leadership Whisperer

Your Limitations are Imaginary

Letting your self-perceived limitations limit you means you short-change yourself and settle for less. Rid yourself of these limitations and you can achieve anything.  I speak from experience.  The following is an adaptation of a Toastmasters speech I wrote and delivered back in 2003. I believe that the central message still holds true today.


I want to share a secret with you…  something I stumbled upon that was so revolutionary it changed my life. Though the implications are far reaching, the secret itself can be expressed in just 4 words:

Your limitations are imaginary

Believing this is like being given a vital key, a key that will, quite literally, change your life as it changed mine.

But what does it mean? Am I trying to tell you your limitations don’t exist? That you don’t have any limitations at all? That there’s absolutely nothing in the world you can’t do? Hardly.  We all know some things that are just plain impossible.  Try touching your right elbow with your right hand, for instance.  Thankfully, there’s one thing about genuine impossibilities.  They’re never all that important.  What I am trying to say is that there is nothing, absolutely nothing you cannot achieve.

Let’s start with a very simple example.  Suppose I arrived at your house carrying a plank – just imagine it is 21 feet long, 1 ½ feet wide and 6 inches thick.  Suppose I laid it on the ground outside your house and offered you €100 to walk the full length of the plank – 21 feet from end to end.  Do you think for €100 you could manage this simple task? Of course you could.  There’s not a single doubt in your mind. You’d skip along that plank like a three-year-old, and in about seven seconds flat you’d be counting your money and wondering what sort of idiot I was to make you an offer like that.

But suppose, instead of laying the plank along the ground, I laid it between two cliffs.  So that now the plank forms a narrow bridge across a twenty-foot wide chasm.  And that chasm’s deep, nearly half a mile of a drop straight down onto jagged rocks with a river full of piranha fish boiling between them. Would you still walk across that plank for €100 or €200 or even €500? You probably wouldn’t even consider my offer, no matter how high I went.  Because walking across a one and a half foot wide bridge over a chasm is likely to cost you your life.

But when you stop to think about it, the distance you have to walk hasn’t changed.  And that plank hasn’t changed.  And your ability to walk hasn’t changed.  So why is it that in one case you could walk the plank with ease and collect your €100 while in another you simply couldn’t walk the plank at all, even for five times that amount?

The answer is imagination.

That’s the only factor that has really changed between the two situations.  So your imaginary limitations are real enough alright, but that doesn’t make them any less imaginary.

The more you look inside yourself the more you become convinced there is a little Imp in there determined to hold you back from personal success,  satisfaction and happiness with his ridiculous little rules that appear impervious to logic.

Let me tell you about MY “Little Imp”…

In November 1998, I sat in a class room full of 17 strangers and shook as our tutor stood in front of the class and confidently introduced himself to all of us who had plunged into the dark abyss of a 4-year road to the MBA (Masters in Business Administration). I knew at that moment it was the most ridiculous decision I had ever made.  I felt like I had fallen out of the ‘stupid tree’ and hit every branch on the way down. Then my greatest nightmare, he asked us to individually introduce ourselves to the class.

I sat there head bent listening to the names and stories of my future colleagues – “Pat, degree in accountancy, company paying for MBA, Denise, Bio-chemist, company paying for it, Philip, Dairy Scientist, company paying for it.”  There were one or two others with no degree qualification but they were senior managers who had worked their way to the top.

When it came to my turn, I smiled nervously and meekly announced:

“I’m Mary T. Tierney, I don’t really have a title because, as my boss said, I am different things to different people depending on the requirement at the time; that could be secretary, shipping, accounts and payroll person, invoicing, sales and marketing, reception, and apparently a superb tea maker.  I have no primary degree, I’m here because I love business and I’m hungry to learn.  My company is not paying for my MBA so I’m taking out a loan to pay for it myself.”

The silence around the room was deafening!  I then admitted to the tutor and class that I was perhaps a little over my head being here in this room, and that perhaps I’d made the wrong decision. Still silence… I knew it!

My tutor came towards me asking me to stand up and face the class.  He placed his hand gently but firmly on my shoulder and addressed the class “See this girl! This girl is here because SHE wants to be here, because she is open to and hungry for learning, because she loves her job, loves business, clearly loves a challenge, AND she is paying for it herself.  SHE is the one from this class that I am banking on – she’s here for all the right reasons and her mind is clearly open and receptive. Watch this space.”

Apart from the embarrassment – I may have walked into that classroom feeling 2 foot tall but I walked out feeling 10 feet tall.

That was a major turning point for me.  I slowly began to realize that those perceived limitations were, in fact, imaginary – that there was absolutely nothing that would stop me doing the MBA and doing it well.

Pangs of Guilt

Now, all that said – it didn’t make the struggle itself any easier.  I didn’t completely escape that unwelcome little imp who resided comfortably in my sub-conscious: “What about your family, your children? Your poor children, your priorities are all wrong lady. Where are you when your children need you? At work? In the study? At residential school?  Paying back a big loan that could be used to buy your children nice things, forfeiting holidays because of exams? Your poor husband. Your poor siblings, you forgot your brother’s birthday on assignment-week. Your friends, who carried you through the nightmare of adolescence, do you phone them? Your mam, who’s not getting any younger, when…….” OH SHUT UP!!!

Of course I got all those familiar pangs of guilt. So I learned to juggle, often studying when everyone else was asleep, like a 5.30am start or a 4am finish.  But I never failed to read the kids their bedtime story. This guilt, I learned, is just another one of those imaginary limitations!

This was driven home to me in a very big way soon afterwards.  My 11 year old daughter at the time and her school classmates were given a task to write to the person they most admired in the world.  They had to write a letter to them and find their address on the internet.  Those that rose to the top of the pile were the likes of Britney Spears, Eminem, even George Clooney (for the more discerning youngster).

A week later, I came home from work to the usual stack of bills piled high inside the front door among which was a letter addressed to me with familiar writing.  (see below)


Next time you find yourself faced with a task you believe you can’t do, take time to remember that what’s stopping you isn’t a lack of ability or talent or even experience but an imaginary limitation.  The first step is to stop thinking that these limitations are a law of nature – something outside of yourself; you must recognize them as imaginary.

We’ve heard it said that life begins at 40. My belief is that Life only begins when we believe those 4 words:

Your limitations are imaginary


Mary T, The Leadership Whisperer. 2021

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