Stop arbitrarily limiting yourself

Crossposted to LessWrong

My roommate types with one finger; he literally only uses his right index finger. I made him do a typing test and his WPM is around 30-40, which is honestly higher than I thought it’d be.

When I first noticed this, I immediately thought: he’s limiting himself for no reason. He could probably get to 60 WPM with proper form pretty easily with as little as 15 minutes of practice a day.

So I asked him why he didn’t use both hands. He said that he’d gotten used to it and never ran into any problems. If it works, it works, I guess.

But still, I left that interaction a little bewildered, and it got me wondering if I have any habits that arbitrarily limit myself as well. I thought of a few examples.


I had a pretty bad track record with STEM classes in high school, so I started to label myself as a “non-STEM” person. I don’t think that this label is doing me any favors; it’s just limiting my willingness and ability to learn STEM subjects in the future. Plus, at this point, I suspect it’s become a self-fulfilling prophecy: I think I’m bad at STEM subjects, which subconsciously may lead me to actually do worse in those classes, which perpetuates my potentially misguided belief. 

Another area where I arbitrarily limit myself is my fashion style. I recently wrote a post about this, but to summarize: I’ve worn hoodies and sweatpants my whole life and have consistently refused opportunities to improve my wardrobe. Why? Because over the years, I’ve established an identity as an informal dresser to my friends and family, and I subconsciously feel the need to uphold that reputation. Which is pretty stupid. Anyways.

Nate Soares writes a great piece about how complaining is a big way we arbitrarily limit ourselves. He offers an example of someone getting out of an abusive relationship: 

After they successfully exit, their friends are likely to be first in line with condolences along the lines of “they were gaslighting you” and “there wasn’t anything you could have done” and “how could you have known what to do?”

They are providing excuses, and these are toxic. They rob you of your power. They rob you of your ability to say “actually, I could have known, if I had been thinking more clearly. I could have acted differently, if I had known better. And that’s the good part, because it means that I am not a helpless victim, because it means that I can learn how to become stronger. Because it means that I cannot be trapped in that sort of situation again.”

I see stuff like this happen all the time in my life. If I fail to make a defensive rotation in basketball, I could easily make an excuse for messing up (it wasn’t my man, he’s just better than me, I’m tired right now). But those excuses don’t help me. If anything, they arbitrarily limit my growth as a basketball player. 


It seems to me that in general, the habits or actions that limit myself tend to be a result of pride or fulfilling an identity. They also seem to do with seeing reality as I want it to be, rather than how it actually is. I want to feel like I’m correct or included in the majority, so I go through mental gymnastics to justify my irrational behavior or I hate on TikTok (without having ever opening the app) because my friends think it’s dumb.

One piece of advice that Paul Graham gives is to keep your identity small. Keeping my identity small frees me of an identity’s social labels and their corresponding expectations, which makes it easier to more objectively assess my behavior or beliefs. For example, removing my “non-STEM” person label allows me to try picking up physics with more of an open mind.

Personally, I feel like most of this boils down to being humble, understanding that there’s always room to grow, and recognizing that being a human is hard. It’s inevitable that some of our habits and actions are going to be limiting ourselves in ways that we fail to even notice at all. The least we could do is to be more conscious of them, and try to limit ourselves less. 

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