You set boundaries without realizing it, but boundaries, like rules, are made to be broken.
January 26, 2021 4 min read
Have you ever seen a dog that’s trained with an electronic collar? It’s quite a thing. They learn where their boundary is and then never cross it. It’s as if they’re stuck behind an invisible wall.
Now here’s a horrifying idea: We humans are a lot like those dogs. We also stop short of invisible walls. We’ve done it our entire careers. But unlike dogs, we often make those boundaries ourselves.
That was my big takeaway from the year 2020 — because it was the year a lot of those invisible walls came down. We stopped ruling out ideas just because they seemed hard or inconvenient. We stopped hewing to old dogma about the way things have to be done. We were pushed out of our comfort zones, out past those boundaries, and we discovered everything we were missing. New ideas and new courage flowed as a result. Then we started to reinvent. To rediscover. To expand our lives and our businesses.
And what were those old boundaries? They came in the form of statements. Maybe some of these will sound familiar: I can’t do that. I don’t know how to do that. My customer doesn’t want that. I can only sell it this way. I can only build it that way. This idea is too crazy. That idea will never work.
I often wonder where thoughts like those come from. Why did we carve up a large world of possibility and limit ourselves to just a tiny part of it? Here’s my theory: When we find something we’re good at, we start to define ourselves by how good we can be at it. But in the process, our definition of what we’re good at starts to narrow.
I recently spoke with a specialty retailer who exemplifies this problem. In pre-pandemic times, she had a storefront where her staff greeted anyone who walked in. During the pandemic, however, she was forced to see people by appointment only — and even though that meant reaching fewer potential customers, her profits soared! Why? Because most of the people walking into her store were never going to buy from her, but she had to pay a staff to engage with them anyway. The appointment system allowed her to focus entirely on her real customer, at a lower cost.
Consider what happened there. Her business was successful, and she always wanted to make it more successful, but appointment-only operations never occurred to her before. That’s because she’d defined herself narrowly. She was asking herself, How do I do a better job of operating this storefront? Framed that way, she could never consider closing the store! She’d created a boundary without realizing it. But the pandemic helped her redefine her question. She instead asked, How do I do a better job solving my clients’ problem? Then the idea of closing the store suddenly made sense.
This, again, was the beauty of 2020. It forced us to consider what once seemed out of the question. There was simply no other option. And so, the statements we told ourselves had to change. They became: I can try that. I’ll learn how to do that. This serves my customer’s new need. I can sell it another way. I can build it another way. This idea is so crazy…it just might work.
Now here is my challenge to us all in 2021: Let’s never forget this lesson. The future will bring great new opportunities, but eventually it will also bring great new comfort. We will once again be tempted to define ourselves narrowly — to protect a simple vision of what we have, at the expense of everything that could have been. And yet, we will also carry the solution. We can always remember this time. We can know that radical thinking isn’t beyond our grasp. It isn’t some foreign concept, or something fleeting. It is simply a matter of recognizing our invisible boundaries — and then, unlike a trained dog, walking right through them.
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