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See Your Possibilities, Not Your Limitations

VanSlykeFor almost two decades, my email signature has ended with “See your possibilities, not your limitations.” I borrowed this sentence from a brief moment in a pretty bad movie. I remember nothing else about the film, only that line, but when the actor uttered the words, it was quite an epiphany for me; this is how you should live. Focus on what’s possible, and the world opens itself to you. You’ll accomplish more, be happier and experience less frustration. Life’s ups and downs are revealed for what they are, temporary conditions that cannot stop you. Taking this perspective is not only effective, it’s liberating. As Eric Hoffer put it, “… man is most uniquely human when he turns obstacles into opportunities.”

Even though every email I send reminds me to focus on possibilities, sometimes I forget my own advice. As most of you know, it’s a tough time for higher education in Arizona. For the better part of six months, budget cuts have ruled my working life. Over time, this began to wear on me. I found myself becoming increasingly frustrated and pessimistic. Hour upon hour of number crunching, scenario analysis and discussion – just to tread water. Then, just a few days ago, I realized that I was seeing the limitations, not the possibilities; I’d lost my focus, and in more ways than one. Not only was my perspective wrong, I was spending way too much time worrying about things I can’t control. (And I call myself a Stoic!) Well, no more; from now on I’ll focus on the good we can do, not the things we can’t afford to do.

All of this sounds nice, but in reality, it can be difficult to focus on possibilities in the face of significant limitations. Fortunately, there are a number of things you can do that should help you maintain a “possibilities” mindset. First, and most importantly, know and focus on your purpose. Keeping your purpose (whether it’s your personal purpose or that of your organization) lets you recognize that there are endless paths to that purpose. If a constraint limits your ability to take one path, take an alternate path. Focusing on your purpose also builds your persistence. Believing in and focusing on your purpose reminds you that your labors are an investment rather than a waste.

Question the conventional ways. Falling back on habits and traditional ways of doing things is a strong, pervasive human and organizational tendency. Often, the conventional ways made sense when first implemented. Over time, however, this may change. What made sense 10 years ago may not make sense today. Don’t be afraid to question the status quo. Sometimes, the old way is still best, but other times a different approach is needed.

Be clever and creative. Questioning convention is only useful if it’s accompanied by a new, better approach. It’s easy to criticize and point out problems; it’s much harder (but much more useful) to offer solutions. Questioning and creativity go hand-in-hand. Interestingly so do creativity and limitations. In fact, the presence of significant limitations (often called constraints in this context) are sometimes seen as precursors to creativity. Constraints, even extreme constraints, may make us open our minds to new possibilities, and to connect things we hadn’t before connected.

Seeing possibilities rather than limitations isn’t starry-eyed, unrealistic optimism, it’s a hard-nosed, pragmatic approach for dealing with challenges. While there’s nothing wrong with optimism, optimism isn’t enough, action is required. At the extreme, the optimist believes things are or will get better all by themselves. My position advocates for taking action to make the situation better. (Of course, a prerequisite condition for this is optimism. Otherwise, what’s the point in taking action?)

Dealing with limitations requires understanding what is and isn’t under your control, then taking effective action to move forward within the limitations. You can’t just wish things away, you have to take intelligent action. The next time you’re faced with significant limitations, remember to focus on your purpose and don’t be afraid to take new paths towards that purpose. See the possibilities, not the limitations. FBN

The W.A. Franke College of Business at Northern Arizona University is home to many great teachers. The College’s faculty and staff are dedicated to the success of its students and the economic development of the region. For more information on The W.A. Franke College of Business, please see: I welcome comments and feedback on these columns. Email your comments to:, or follow me on Twitter @cvanslyke.




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