On May 6th, 1954, something really incredible happened. A seemingly impossible feat was accomplished, and the whole world of sports was turned upside down. You may not know the significance of that date but its influence has almost certainly permeated your life in one way or another. It is the story of an incredible athlete, Roger Bannister, and his historic triumph over what was then called, “the Everest of athletic achievement”, the 4-minute mile.
Centuries prior to breaking the barrier, experts the world over had arrived at a dubious consensus that running a mile in under 4 minutes was insurmountable for humans. Calculations and justifications had been made about the limitations of the human body and for the tens of thousands of athletes that came before Bannister, those reasons were enough to keep them from doing everything it took to overcome it.
The fact that Roger Bannister overcame the 4-minute mile barrier is incredible enough by itself. However, dwelling on that achievement alone robs us of the much more transcendent lesson his experience taught the world. That lesson is manifest in the fact that not too long after his amazing feat, others followed his footsteps and also broke the 4-minute mile barrier.
Bannister’s success overcame a theoretical limit set by experts based on the prior limitations of all the other athletes that had tried and failed to overcome it. By breaking the barrier, Bannister appears to have given the world a license to think beyond a centuries-old but erroneous belief about the capabilities of the human body. He gave us the faith to see beyond the horizon. Humans didn’t suddenly become stronger because Bannister broke the barrier. They discovered their strength because he helped them visualize themselves overcoming that obstacle. Today, running a mile in under 4-minutes is par for the course for elite athletes and it’s even not surprising to find a high-schooler or two breaking that barrier as well.
As I reflect on this story and many others like it, I am struck by the awesome power of the limits we put on ourselves, or in other cases, the limits we allow others to put on us. I believe what made Roger Bannister different from you and me, is that he rejected the limits that had been set by so-called experts in favor of a mindset that saw those limitations as hurdles that he, in time, could overcome.
He had no illusions as to the difficulty of the challenge, neither did he underestimate the work required to achieve it. All in all, he persevered in the face of insurmountable odds and was rewarded with the sweet taste of victory. However, what makes Bannister’s story the more inspiring is that it teaches us all that we can allow the limitations of those who came before us to either pin us down into perpetual stagnation or stand only as an obstacle we dedicate our lives to overcome.
As human beings, we are incredibly susceptible to the conditions under which we are born and raised. Our understanding of our own capabilities is shaped by the inevitable indoctrination of the environment in which we live. Furthermore, in an attempt to protect us from heartache, and disappointment, those who love and care for us may deter us from challenging societal limits. They may even encourage us to maintain the status quo rather than question the limits of our strength, the scope of our intellect or the breadth of our imagination.
Hence, adopting the limitations of others is, for most of us, a natural instinct. We are wired to learn from the experiences of others, and in most cases, that is the safest approach to life. However, living a safe life is not necessarily equal to living a full life. In fact, I believe it is in questioning the limitations that have been placed before us that we really begin to live up to the measure of our creation and existence in this world. It is in overcoming limits that we truly grow and discover our potential.
So, what limitations have you adopted in your life? What are the things you believe you cannot do simply because someone you know or trust could not do them as well? What decisions have you failed to make because someone else failed when they attempted it? It’s time to take back control of your future from the ghosts of the failures of those who came before you. It is time to embrace your capabilities, explore your dreams and break through your limits.