There’s a phrase that I hear too often, especially when used with children and young people – You can do anything you put your mind to – or some similar expression.

I know parents and teachers want to encourage young people, but using that phrase is not only misleading, but it’s also cruel.

Not that parents and teachers shouldn’t encourage young people, but that encouragement should be based in reality.

That’s not being cruel. The universe is filled with limitations. Nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, no matter how much energy and effort you apply. If you jump off a cliff without a paragliding outfit you’re going to fall… and hard.

The same is true of people. There are some who can do almost anything in their chosen field, such as Michael Phelps in swimming, or Tom Brady, but even they end up facing limits imposed by age and their physiology. And what’s often overlooked in cases such as theirs is just how much they can’t do, how much they’ve given up in the rest of their lives to achieve a comparatively short span of greatness in one field.

And yes, there are people who achieve goals no one thought those people could achieve, but they’re celebrated precisely because they’re so rare.

I’m not saying that anyone should tell a young person that they cannot do something, but they should tell them what it takes. My wife the professor teaches voice and opera, and every year she gets fresh-faced students who were considered “stars” in their high schools. Only a few of those students will get a life-supporting paying job in classical music. One in several hundred might go on to get “star” roles in the field. Why? Because there are probably ten thousand or more music graduates every year for perhaps at most a thousand jobs, most of them instrumental.

And while she can tell whether a student has the raw talent, so many other factors (or limits) enter the equation. How determined is the student? How hard and long will they work? How good is their technique? Can they learn roles quickly and accurately? Is their voice what grad schools or directors are looking for? And with the growing emphasis on media… do they look the “right” way for the part? These days, the absolutely most brilliant and greatest singing white soprano will not be cast in the professional lead in Madame Butterfly. Other roles, perhaps, but not that one.

And then, there’s simply the luck factor. I’d likely still be a mid-list SF writer, if in the late 1980s I hadn’t decided to write a fantasy novel because certain fantasy authors at a F&SF convention had hinted that I couldn’t do it. I turned in that novel to Tor just after Tom Doherty decided to publish the first Wheel of Time book. Even my own editor didn’t know I was writing The Magic of Recluce. But Tor liked it and gave me the same cover artist (Darrell Sweet) at a time when big fantasy books were taking off. I couldn’t have planned the timing. I was just working like hell trying to sell enough to become a full-time author. And sometimes luck goes the other way, as with The Green Progression, which I thought was the worst-selling hardcover Tor ever published, but turned out to be only the second-worst, which was why there wasn’t a sequel, even though it got some good reviews.

The bottom line is simple. You can’t be anything you dream, and if you want to succeed in the field where you have ability, and keep succeeding, you’ll have to work harder than you thought possible on the abilities you do have for longer than you think possible… and even then, you’ll likely need a bit of luck.

And, of course, there’s the one in a million case, where a lucky bastard makes it big without doing anything and certainly not working as hard as you did, but do you really want to gamble on being able to do it that way?

4 thoughts on “Limits”

  1. Sandie says:

    There is another sort of related issue as well… children do not seem to be taught how to deal with failing. I don’t mean you want them to fail, but they will at some point about something, and if they are not helped to learn the skill to deal with this, they can be devastated and not know how or have the inner strength to pick themselves up and move on or work harder or whatever is needed.

    1. Postagoras says:

      I’ve seen that the local schools teach that failure is very valuable, and that you learn a lot when you fail.

      The issue arises when parents refuse to accept that their little gem has failed. These toxic parents can have an outsized effect on a school bureaucracy.

  2. Postagoras says:

    This is the same conversation that was the subject of the basketball documentary, Hoop Dreams. Humans really have a hard time understanding statistics, whether it’s the odds of becoming an NBA star, an opera star, or a multi-millionaire.

    However, I think you’re misjudging the folks who tell kids that “you can do anything your put your mind to.” I really believe that this is simply a way to say “If you don’t put your mind to it, you won’t accomplish much.” The usual way of saying it simply has a positive gloss on it through custom.

    1. Darcherd says:

      Good point.

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