Useful vs. Unnecessary Constraints

The Unlimited Universe

What if you could do, have, or be whatever you want or imagine? What if nothing held you back? What if you had unlimited superpowers in a world of infinite resources?

Answering those questions can provide you with some clarity as to the type of life you’d like to live (well, of anything else you might want). However, that desire can’t turn from non-physical thought into part of physical reality in an instant. Instead, realizing that desire requires effort, some extent of planning, and time.

As physical beings, we are not all-powerful. We can’t bring any crazed fantasy to life with a snap of our fingers.

Instead, in our physical world, there are constraints. “Constraints” is another word for limits. Limits define the finiteness of a certain entity.

Constraints make the physical world what it is. Finiteness is a necessary element of physical reality. Nothing in the physical world is without end—everything eventually stops, runs out, or reaches a point where it can grow no more. Everything exists in certain limited quantities. You can count on nothing lasting forever: everything is limited.


Absolute and Relative Limits

Limits may sound evil. Surely they are to blame for keeping us from certain peace and happiness. Without limits there would be no need to fight for resources because everyone would always have enough. However, because there perpetually is not enough, humanity is doomed to be not only at war, but fundamentally discontent, forever—right?

Sure. That sure can be the case.

Does it have to be? Of course not. Answer me this: how often has humanity come up against true, absolute limits? Where have we collectively reached a point where we can literally do and innovate no more?

I know, the questions are vague. That’s because it’s hard to say what an absolute limit is. You face relative limits on a regular basis. Based on your income, you can spend only so much money in a week. Based on how long you sleep, you have only so many waking hours in a day (probably about 16-18 hours). You only have as many days off from school or work in a year as your overlords allow you.

But what about absolute limits? Have you ever paid witness to the complete depletion of a resource, such as a certain mineral? Do you think people have run and swam as far and as fast as they ever will? Is our technology is advanced as it ever will be? Do humans know all there is to possibly know?

Of course not. Heck, with those last two, we’re just getting started!

Many limits are hard to pinpoint. We don’t know where the universe ends, how skilled a human can be, or how capable technology can become. Relatively speaking, these things are changing all the time. The universe is constantly expanding. Each generation gains access to more knowledge than the last. The hottest technology goes obsolete every time you turn around. If there are limits on how far these things can go, clearly we haven’t even come close yet, as growth is constant and rapid.

Limits still have their place, of course. We can innovate and learn only so fast. The dimension of time itself is the greatest limit of all, as it provides us with the perception of speed, effort, failure, success, growth, and change. Without time, no other limits would be possible.


Limits are Usually Unnecessary

Still, even as individuals, bumping up against absolute limits is rare. Are you certain that you have ever run as fast as your body was physically capable of taking you for a certain distance? Have you reached the peak level of physical fitness possible for yourself? Have you contributed as much as is possible for a single human being in one lifetime?

I’ve run several hundred races over the last 7 years, and my answer to the first question is still a definite no. There were about two or three races where I felt that I came very close to running as fast as I possibly could at my fitness level at the time. But it’s so hard to be sure. It’s very likely that I unnecessarily limited myself somehow, even if it was just one half-assed step.

Unnecessarily limiting oneself is a common condition among humans—so common, in fact, it’s deserving of plague-status. This happens, in fact, almost all the time. However, it’s so frequent that we’ve come to take this germ of ours for granted.

What makes a limit “unnecessary” is that it not only is the product of human choice—it also does nothing in helping you to realize your desires.

Contrary to unnecessary limits are useful limits. Useful limits provide the physical world with order, and encourage creativity, learning, and optimization without wasting time (which is itself a useful limit).

Here are lists of both types of limits:


Useful Constraints:




Laws of physics (e.g. Newton’s laws of motion, Theory of Relativity)

Your physical body

Basic biology

Your attention

Your current abilities

Your current fitness level

Your current stash of knowledge

The plasticity of memory (who needs to remember everything?)

A finite lifespan (of all living things, including you)

The current state of technology


The nature of certain resources: non-renewable (e.g. gold), renewable (e.g. trees), and non-depletable (e.g. wind and solar power)


The effects of genetics


The speeds at which certain things can happen

The strength of various qualities you have: courage, compassion, power, confidence, honesty, etc.

The limited quantities everything exists in (e.g. people, money, food)

How much you care about different things (i.e. prioritization)

Physical needs: sleep, food

The current abilities and qualities of other people

The current abilities, qualities, and knowledge of humanity (collectively)

Your beliefs


Unnecessary Constraints:

Eating unhealthy foods

Being under- or malnourished

Being overweight

Lack of sleep

Inefficient sleep/spending too long trying to sleep

Lack of physical movement (exercise)

Lack of physical strength

Lack of overall physical fitness

Lack of training (i.e. physical and/or skill-based training)

Poor/lack of education

Lack of knowledge

Lack of money

Lack of certain qualities

Lack of clarity

Lack of technology and/or other equipment

Lack of people (i.e. lack of labor, lack of support)

Lack of discipline

Lack of creativity

Identifying with/limiting yourself to the possibility of only one belief system


Harmful and time-wasting habits

Being surrounded by the wrong people (i.e. negative, not helpful, unsupportive)


Win the Game by Changing the Constraints

Calling something a “constraint” doesn’t mean it can’t be changed—even many of the useful ones. In essence, all a constraint refers to is the current state of things. Constraints tell you a bit about what is and what is not possible right now, in addition to what is and what is not likely to happen next, and that’s about it. Constraints don’t inform you as to everything that is both possible and impossible at this moment—at least, no single constraint does.

In many situations, constraints leave you with plenty of room for creativity, independent thought, and choice. Of course, your abilities to be creative, to think critically, and to choose are constrained. But, the limits of these abilities are constrained largely by other things, such as your experiences and knowledge. Plus, from moment to moment the extent of these constraints are under conscious control. This means that if you get stopped short, it is only because of your choice not to exercise more attention, focus, discipline, courage, heart-centeredness, etc. In other words, a sense of being limited in exercising these abilities is of your own doing—you are unnecessarily limiting yourself.

Everything you do, every choice you make, and every experience you’ve ever had is constrained somehow. Constraints are inescapable. In your physical lifetime, you will never be presented with unlimited options.

However, more often than not, not only do you have more options than you know what to do with-- there are options available to you which you are unaware of to begin with. Your options may be finite in number, but you have so many you could never possibly explore them all. When you start to think about all the different choices you could have made in your lifetime up to this point, you might even feel grateful that you are constrained. Otherwise you might still be trying to decide on the theme of your 1st birthday party—or what to study in college.

We are limited, but not nearly as much as we think we are. We are limited, but we limit ourselves far more than is necessary.

When considering limits- the stopping point of things- you also have to consider growth, which is the ability to transcend or work around that stopping point. Your ability to think critically and independently limits you differently now than it did 10 years ago. Let’s assume your thinking abilities have improved over the last decade. In some ways, your improvement in this ability will close off options to you. Options you would have considered taking 10 years ago no longer seem viable to you: in this example, such options would seem foolish or unwise to you. At the same time, your ability to think critically opens up options to you which you did not have 10 years ago. In the past, you either couldn’t have imagined such options as possible, or you couldn’t have figured out how to make them work. Your increase in intelligence since then has opened up new possibilities for you.

Take, for example, physical training. At the start of my senior year of high school, my sixth year of running competitively, I slowed down without apparent cause. I began to feel fatigued and in pain much of the time—even when I wasn’t running. I struggled with this for most of the school year, up until Outdoor Track rolled around in March. I didn’t get much faster in the Spring, but I was coming off a month of rest after being injured, and I had become more accepting of my apparent fate by that point.

In spite of this change in circumstances, I continued to train as I always had (the constraints of an injury aside). Most weeks, this involved doing 2-3 speed workouts per week. An example of a speed workout is to run 1 lap around the track (.25 miles, or 400 meters) 8 times, at 90 seconds per lap, and with 30 seconds of rest in between each lap. Four 90-second laps will get you a 6 minute mile— a brisk pace no matter who you are; yet, for a well-trained athlete, certainly not the fastest you can go (I’m well aware there are people who laugh at the thought of a 90-second 400 being “brisk”). The point of a speed workout is to go fast and to push yourself, but not to expend quite as much energy as you would in a race.

By the start of Outdoor Track in my freshman year of college, I began to seriously doubt whether speed workouts provided any benefit to me. Barring my ultramarathon debut between the end of high school and the start of college (over the Summer), I had made almost no improvements in the last year and a half. Anything involving speed continued to be challenging for me, and at practices and meets I usually finished near- or dead-last. This was the first time I doubted the functionality of speed workouts- I had always taken them for granted- and now it seemed like I had few options. Either I could continue struggling through speed workouts and just barely scrape by to maintain my current abilities, or I could stop doing them and slow down. For the rest of the schoolyear, I chose the former.

For about a month and a half after that year at college ended, I ran very little. I was in a lot of pain and I didn’t want to make it worse. In that time, I heard about a method of training that I had read a little about several years earlier, yet didn’t totally understand.

This form of training is based on heartrate. The idea is that when the heart beats within a certain range of rates, the body burns fat for fuel. When that fat-burning range is exceeded, the body burns carbohydrates instead. The other idea at play is that fat is a far more reliable, sustainable, and abundant source of energy for the body than carbohydrates— in fact, it’s almost endless.

What you’re supposed to do in training, then, is to always stay within the fat-burning range. Always. Don’t push it too hard.

It takes time, but over the course of months of doing this, your aerobic threshold (the performance-level at which the body switches from burning fat to burning carbs) increases. For a runner, this means that you can run faster, yet your body still burns fat and you still feel relatively relaxed. This is analogous to being able to lift heavier weights as you get stronger. Thanks to training, the effort it takes to lift 50 pounds today is the same amount of effort it took to lift 20 pounds a few months ago. (I say that solely for the sake of comparison; this type of training might not make sense for a weight-lifter).

For me, these ideas about training meant a lot of long, slow distance runs (“LSD”) and no speed workouts. It also meant doing a fair amount of walking on my runs- especially up hills-, and training at an average pace of about 12 minutes per mile (5 miles per hour, or 8 kilometers per hour).

I don’t have a heart rate monitor, so rather than base my training on heartrate I’ve based it on a certain level of effort (so it’s a subjective judgment, rather than an objective one). The simplest way to describe it is that I aim to always feel “basically comfortable.” I’m not strolling along, but it doesn’t hurt, either.

At first, this was very difficult to come to terms with. I felt like a wimp running so slow all the time and doing so much walking. I stuck with it, though, because I was finally able to train while keeping fatigue at bay. Plus, I had been struggling for so long, I figured I didn’t have much to lose by trying something new.

6 months into training this way, things have been going quite well—wonderfully, even. Indeed, there have been objective improvements. I haven’t raced much, but the one 5K (3.1 miles) I ran was faster than every 5K I raced since I began struggling in my senior year, except for one race early in college (even that was only 4 seconds faster). In September, it took me 13 hours to complete a 50-mile run. In November, it took me just under 9 hours to complete a 40-mile run (10 miles should not make a 4-hour difference—at least, not on the roads). In the Fall, it usually took me 100-105 minutes to complete the 9.25 mile run from my house to my sister’s house. Yesterday, on Christmas, it took 90 minutes. I always do this run at a pace that is “basically comfortable”—even yesterday I did.

The best form of comparison, of course, would be to go to a track meet and run the same races I did in high school and college. Track races aren’t my focus right now, but I’m looking to run at least one in the next few months—and I’m confident that I’ll do better than I have been the last several years.

And this is all without speed workouts! To make it even better, I’ve certainly saved myself a lot of pain without those the last few months, too. ;) (but I’m sure they’ll come back some day…)

Another important piece of the puzzle, of course, was overcoming chronic pain. As you could imagine, it has been much easier to run faster since I’ve stopped being in pain. You can read about how I did that in this article: The Great Back Pain Myth. That article also demonstrates a point I made earlier in this article, which is that increased knowledge and critical thinking abilities opens up new options to you—options you previously had no idea existed.

As with most topics related to physical health, I could expand on and debate about this for eons, but the point is that you are only limited by the options you believe you have. Once you entertain the idea that there is an alternative in addition to the two undesirable options you have, you might not come upon one right away, but at last it is possible to relieve yourself of the burden of unnecessary limitations.


Roadblock vs Creative Challenge: A Matter of Perception

If you take a look at the lists again, you may notice that some of the items seem to contradict one another. For example, on the list of Useful Constraints, you’ll find “money”, “your current stash of knowledge”, and “your current abilities”. On the list of Unnecessary Constraints, you’ll find “lack of money,” “lack of knowledge,” and “lack of training” (which roughly equates to, “lack of ability”).

It may sound like the items on the two list are one and the same. If you don’t have a lot of money, don’t you have to face up to a lack of money? Yes, you do. But, these lists are largely a matter of perspective. If you have $5 in the bank, then you have $5 in the bank. There’s no debating that. It is a matter of face. However, whether that has to stop you from achieving your goals and desires and fantasies of magic is a matter of choice.

Say you want to get a new laptop, for a simple example. Money is indeed a constraint in this case. It determines whether you have the option of going to a store, trading dollar bills for a laptop, and then bringing that laptop home and calling it yours. If you have $5 in the bank, that option is not available to you right now. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get a laptop. If you believe you can’t get a laptop, you’re using a lack of money as an unnecessary constraint on your ability to get a laptop. In reality, it is still possible—you’ll just have to find another way is all. Of course, if you don’t believe that there is another way, you’re unlikely to come upon one.

So, if you don’t have enough money, what can you do? Well, you can go make some money. There are a number of ways you can do that—get a job, buy and sell stocks, start a business, become a con artist, steal the money, etc. Then you can use that money to go buy the laptop, all by your little self. You have other options, too. You can ask for a laptop as a Christmas gift (though, at the time of my writing this, you’re a day late—sorry). You can ask someone to buy it for you and promise to pay them back later. You can ask someone to buy it for you and compensate them in some form that isn’t money, such as by offering to fix something in their house (or, if you are without skill, you can offer your body—or your hand in marriage). You can barter, and trade something you own for a laptop. You can buy a used laptop and thus spend less money. You can take someone’s dysfunctional laptop off their hands, fix it, and then keep it for yourself.

The options are many, you see. You are indeed constrained—based on your abilities, some of those options won’t be available to you (such as that last one). But with time and effort, you can change the constraints and improve upon those abilities. You can even see this desire to get a laptop as a call to get creative and use and improve your skills. Maybe you can’t dish out sweet cash, but you can still rise to the challenge. Let today’s constraints be tomorrow’s strengths.


Transcend and Embrace

Lastly, take note that all of the constraints on both lists are subject to change. The flexibility of some items, such as gravity, is more constrained than others, but they all have their holes and they all have a little bit of wiggle room—even if it’s not much. Humans are always pushing past what has constrained them by doing research, discovering new knowledge (truths), altering their ideas, trying new things, and changing their beliefs. What we believe to be possible is always in a state of flux. This progress occurs on both a collective level and an individual level (that means you!).

Indeed, personal growth itself is a game of changing constraints. You get rid of the unnecessary limits which hold you back, and you consciously select constraints that will help to keep you on your desired path. You set healthy boundaries between your work and your personal life. You choose one big goal to focus on, and you let that set the limits for how you spend your time each day (watching cat videos on YouTube is not an option!). You bring the good stuff into your life and you reject the bad, thereby constraining what you’ll put your attention on.

Keep both lists in mind, and notice the effects the items on each have on your life. Re-title the second list as “Abuses of Power,” and think about how you’ve been giving your power away to these things. Consider how you could see certain situations differently, and make new choices which either work around or push past the unnecessary constraints.

Then, look at the top list and let yourself feel grateful for these things—especially the ones you cannot change (such as physical death). They add elements of excitement and challenge, yet also just enough stability to life, that they allow for you to create a compelling story. When you look back on your fondest memories, greatest accomplishments, and richest experiences, you will see these useful constraints somewhere in the backdrop.

Yet, keep in mind that these, too, are not as solid and static as you believe them to be. No constraint is forever, just as all physical things eventually come to an end.

Transcend the unnecessary. Embrace the useful.

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