You’re a static person, right? If I meet you now, then again one year from now, I would probably recognize you as the same person, with roughly the same qualities. Even if I wouldn’t, you probably see yourself as a static entity, with some degree of persistency over time. But when it comes to self-cultivation, there is a problem with this kind of thinking. To view yourself as static is to impose limitations on yourself. Oddly, limitations can be a source of identity. But self-imposed limitations are holding you back for no reason.

A lot of people make blanket statements about their own limitations. These are everyday occurrences for some people and I constantly here them in martial arts classes. Here are some examples, both for martial artists and the general public:

“I’m more of a grappler than a kicker.”
“I have to learn a technique by feeling it.”
“I’m not good at math.”
“I can’t dance.”

These statements are not unreasonable, but they betray the speaker’s belief that their skills cannot change. When someone makes this kind of statement, they are assigning a static evaluation to themselves and, most importantly, identifying with it.  Sources of identity can be incredibly persistent, even if the original self-evaluation was based on very little evidence. Moreover, when a static identity reinforces the arbitrary limits that you set for yourself, what does that say about your identity?

Suppose you were 14 years old and in art class. The teacher tells you to paint a landscape. It’s one of the hardest things that you’ve ever done in school and a constant source of stress. You get frustrated and come to the conclusion that you’re just not good at art. Your belief is confirmed by the sight of other, “talented” students for whom the same task is easy. You’re a teenager and you’ve never really tried to paint before, so this first impression becomes a lasting impression. It’s a formative time in your life, so this self-evaluation fits neatly into your identity. You continue your life as a non-artist, rarely giving that potential skill a second thought. I know this because it happened to me.

I continued taking art courses every year because there were very few elective options at my high school. For three years, I came away with the same impression. In my final year of high school, I enrolled in yet another art class for lack of a better idea. But this class was different. The teacher took a relaxed, hands-off approach. He allowed each student to work at their own pace, with whatever media and subjects they liked. I chose pencil on paper as my medium, constantly erasing and doubting myself. I drew at a glacial pace, but it was class work, so I had to keep trying to produce something.

My drawings turned out great. I couldn’t believe how good they were. I felt like my drawings weren’t just impressive “for me,” but they were impressive, full stop. For me, the key ingredient was time. When I wasn’t rushed, I could take the time to get it right. At that point, a small piece of my identity exploded. I didn’t know whether I had the fabled “talent,” but I knew that I was capable of producing a genuinely good drawing. I was so proud of them that I took every opportunity to show off my drawings. I got very good at “accidentally” letting other people seeing them. I was genuinely shocked, not because my drawings were phenomenal, but because I had established an identity in which I was “bad at art.”

This has happened over and over in my life. I used to resign myself to having bad handwriting, until one day I decided to change the way I wrote my N. The other letters followed. Now people tell me that my handwriting is beautiful. I used to think that I’d never be able to speak a foreign language. Now I live in Beijing. I don’t consider myself bilingual yet, but now I have a much more realistic idea of what bilingualism requires. These skills are not God-given gifts. They can be improved like anything else. It is well within your control.

I don’t believe that everyone can be good at everything. But I’m skeptical of people. When someone makes a blanket statement about their abilities, my first reaction is to doubt them. I think to myself: “What makes you so special?” It may seem backwards, but I believe this sort of self-limiting attitude is a by-product of individualism. Everyone is a beautiful and unique snowflake, right? Some people even talk about their limitations with pride. In a way, it’s even arrogant, as if uniqueness gives someone an excuse to skip out on the parts that are hard for everyone. Everyone has a license to give up when things get hard, because they are “playing to their strengths.” But when you play to your strengths, you are living in the past, relying on whatever identity you established when you were 14 and in art class.

Take a good look at the things that you believe about yourself. Ask yourself: “Where did I get that idea?” You may find that surprisingly large portions of your identity are holdovers from adolescence or even childhood. Try to honestly evaluate whether your self-evaluations still apply. Beware of confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is the process of selectively choosing evidence to support a conclusion at which you’ve already arrived. In this case, confirmation bias will usually take the form of selective memory. Confirmation bias can be extremely difficult to overcome, especially if your beliefs are deeply ingrained within your identity.

Maybe you think that you can’t sing. But is it because you’re unable, or because you’ve never been taught properly? Have you ever put effort into improving that skill? If not, maybe it’s best if you define your abilities differently: You’re not incapable of singing. You’re just not good at singing yet. The difference is in your potential for change.

A recent article over at Psychology Today describes this phenomenon by differentiating between two types of people: Entity theorists and incremental theorists. In general terms, entity theorists believe that their skills are fixed, while incremental theorists believe that their skills can change. Entity theorists have actually been shown to experience anxiety when their skills improve. In other words, a static self-perception can cause stress when confronted with the reality of change.

Identity is a foundation, but it can also be an anchor. We form our identities based on our limitations as much as our abilities – this much is unavoidable. But when arbitrary, self-imposed limitations are sources of identity, they are much harder to overcome. To destroy those restrictions would be self-destructive, an attack on your very identity. On the other hand, living with those restrictions damages your self-esteem and impedes your ability to improve. Recognizing your limitations is good self-awareness, but to identify with them is to take on some very heavy baggage.

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