Forget positive thinking. Forget self-help. Science is discovering that our minds have vastly more power than we ever imagined.
You’ve probably heard the story about a woman somewhere who lifted a car to save her child pinned underneath. Back in 1962, comic book artist Jack Kirby claimed that his inspiration for creating The Incredible Hulk came from witnessing a woman lifting a car off her baby. Similar scenarios have reportedly occurred dozens of times since.
These kinds of stories are often found in self-help books, with the inevitable message that if someone can lift a car, you too can do the seemingly impossible. But most of us (thankfully) don’t find ourselves in the position of needing to extricate a loved one from underneath a vehicle, and so it’s a little hard to figure out just how this relates to our everyday life.
Sure, that woman lifted the car off her baby. But when it comes to launching a business, learning a new skill or even just getting up earlier to exercise, most of us are challenged to muster anything close to the same kind of drive and determination.
To benefit from these kinds of stories on a practical level, we need to delve a bit deeper than the self-help literature and explore how the mind actually works.
Going Beyond Where You’ve Gone Before
There’s a specific woman-lifts-car story that may inform how such one-off feats of superhuman strength can apply to our everyday performance and productivity.
Laura Shultz in 1977 lifted the back end of a Buick that was on top of her grandson’s arm. The Florida resident was 63 at the time, and had never lifted more than 50 pounds. At first, she refused to talk about it, but finally did in an interview with Dr. Charles Goddard.
She told Goddard, “If I was able to do this when I didn’t think I could, what does that say about the rest of my life? Have I wasted it?”
Changed by her experience, she decided to go back to college to study geology, something she had always wanted to do. In her 60s, she got her degree and ultimately taught in a college.
We actually can accomplish far more than we think we can once we make up our minds to do so. And although that last statement can sound a bit self-helpy, it also happens to be consistent with recent brain science discoveries.
Scientists have yet to figure out exactly how people lift cars while under duress, but they are beginning to understand that many of our apparent limits – physical and otherwise – come from the brain. And if they come from the brain, they can be transcended by the brain.
Researchers now believe that we use only about 60% of our muscle mass when we are exercising to the limit – or rather, what we believe to be to the limit. Why do we think we are at our limit when we aren’t even close? Our brains.
Our brains protect us by sending signals to our muscles in the form of pain or distress, essentially telling them that they are at maximum capacity even when they aren’t. In doing so, the brain ensures that we don’t get to maximum capacity or beyond and do real damage.
Still, you could go well beyond 60%, well beyond what you think is your limit, and still have plenty in reserve. Indeed, elite athletes typically use up to 80% of their capacity when they are going all out.
Based on the new research, many scientists now believe that the brain acts as a "governor" for physical exercise, and so the pain or fatigue we feel in our muscles when we exercise actually is more like an emotion than any real physical fatigue.
In other words, although we are convinced we are tired, it’s really just our brain tricking us into thinking we are tired. The new neuroscience is telling us that how far we can go physically has more to do with our brains than our bodies.
How to Trick Yourself Into Raising Your Game
Now it begins to make sense. If we have more strength than our brains allow us to believe, then lifting a seemingly too-heavy object may be theoretically possible for many of us. And when we are under duress – such as when a loved one is trapped under a car – we are both motivated and entirely focused on the present moment. And so our brain doesn’t interfere with limiting signals as it might when we're at the gym.
So if you’re trying increase the weight you lift during your workout routine, it may be helpful to focus on conditioning your mind to move past what you think are your limits, knowing they truly are not. But if your objective is not athletic prowess, these same principles can still help you transcend many of the perceived limitations that are standing between you and your goals, or preventing you from reaching a higher level of performance.
Just as scientists now understand that your brain sends signals that keep much of your physical ability in reserve, consider that you are very likely keeping much of your mental abilities in reserve. This is where Laura Shultz’ experience is instructive.
Laura Shultz didn’t simply lift a car and then go back to her old life. She realized that lifting the car was a metaphor for everything else in her life she was capable of but didn’t realize she was. She didn’t know what scientists much later discovered about the brain keeping her physical abilities in reserve. But she intuitively understood that lifting the car meant she had those abilities, and so likely had other abilities she wasn’t using.
Before the event, she assumed she could never study geology, much less teach it at the college level, because she couldn't go to college when she was younger. Once she realized that she was the one placing limitations on herself, she removed the barriers and went to college. Most people wouldn’t go to college in their 60s, thinking they were too old. She knew that was just a self-imposed barrier, and went anyway.
I want to emphasize that this isn’t simply a matter of relying on self-help motivation techniques (which rarely last), but on understanding science’s view of how your brain is limiting your true capacity. Armed with that knowledge, you can then take practical steps to tap into that capacity.
The best way to tap into your hidden capacity is to actively challenge your perceived limitations, and be brutally honest with yourself about the ways in which you are preventing yourself from accessing your greater capacity. In other words, this is not an exercise in motivation, but in focus – focusing specifically on whether you have untapped potential, whether you are blocking that potential and how to unblock it.
Try this exercise:
1. Write down your goal that you think is currently impossible (or unlikely). This could be a new goal, such as getting a degree or learning a language or running a marathon. Or it can be a goal to take a current activity to a higher level, such as expanding a business, or playing a musical instrument better or making more successful investment choices.
2. Write down why you think the goal is impossible. You’re too old. You don’t have the money. You don’t have the time. You’re not good at it. You’re not smart enough. You lack the knowledge. Your family won’t approve. You lack the emotional fortitude. You lack sufficient mental focus. You lack confidence. Or some other reason – the list is seemingly endless.
3. Determine if the barrier is truly a barrier. This is the most important part. This is where you determine whether you really can’t accomplish the goal or – more likely - the “barrier” is really your brain’s way of keeping part of your capacity in reserve. Are you really too old to accomplish your goal? If you’re 63, and your goal is to play professional football, then yes, the “I’m too old” barrier is real. But if your goal is to go back to college, or the majority of other possible goals, then your barrier isn’t real.
4. List options for overcoming your perceived barriers. If your goal is to get a degree, and your barrier is “I’m too old,” actively question whether and why that’s true. You’ll quickly find that it isn’t. If you’re barrier is that you lack the money or time for college, start brainstorming how you could get the money, or finance your education, or find a low-cost alternative. If your schedule is too full for college, what could you remove? How could you free up time? What degree programs offer the most flexibility? Of course, adapt the barriers and your active questioning of them to your specific goal.
5. If you’re still coming up short, go back to the woman-lifts-car scenario. The people who lifted cars off of other people did so because they had no choice. They didn’t have the luxury of wondering whether they were strong enough, or were being practical, or anything else. They simply did it because they had to.
So if you’ve brainstormed and you’re not finding ways around your perceived barriers, imagine that you are in a situation where you have no choice but to accomplish your goal. Imagine that you need to get the college degree, or else you will lose your job, your livelihood and everything you own.
Kind of extreme? Yes. That’s the point. Imagine yourself in a situation where you truly have no choice but to accomplish the goal. Under those circumstances, figure out what you would change in your life to do it. And then ask yourself if you want the goal badly enough to make it happen – because you’ve just found a way to do it – which means you have the capacity to accomplish the goal and your limitations are nothing more than perceptions.