The Key to Happiness: Know Your Limitations

There is a great line from Clint Eastwood in the 1973 movie “Magnum Force”: “A man’s got to know his limitations.”

Eastwood played San Francisco detective Harry Callahan in the movie, brutal but honest, and suffice it to say the man who didn’t know his limitations – a corrupt police official – got blown away by him. A bureaucrat, the official tried to be something he wasn’t: a murdering gangster, and Eastwood called him on it.

Most of us, thank God, don’t have job crises like the bad cop in “Magnum Force,” nor Clint Eastwood offering us career guidance. But knowing your limitations might just be the wisest lesson you’ll ever learn.

We live in a self-esteem drenched culture where we tell our kids if “you dream it, you can be it.” While I am optimistic by disposition, and am awed by the opportunities life and this country permit every one of us, I must say never has such absolute nonsense been uttered.

I can’t dream my way onto a major league pitching roster (trust me, I spent most of my youth trying). Unless you, dear reader, are quite young and quite tall, you can’t wish your way into the NBA. I won’t be a great accountant (the attention to detail thing, you know). Or run a sub-3 marathon (despite years of trying I can’t, or won’t, put in the 100-mile weeks that requires). I know my limitations.

This is not meant to be a dispiriting message; it is another way of addressing what we have visited before in this blog. People are happiest at work and life when they use their strengths, not focus on becoming someone they aren’t. While this seems simplistic, it is deeply rooted in the academic literature on happiness, and shown by numerous empirical studies.

To focus on your strengths, you have to know what they are. Just as importantly, what they aren’t. Be honest with yourself. Do a clear-eyed self-appraisal. Happy, successful people have a highly developed sense of self-awareness, which the New York Times called the “secret ingredient” of successful people last weekend in a widely-emailed op-ed.

How many of us are swathed in angst because we think some job is out there that will fulfill all of our dreams? And we feel guilty because we aren’t chasing it, even though in no way are we wired for it.

I see this phenomenon all the time in teaching law students at an elite university. Winners of the great winnowing lottery that is American education, more than a few arrive and graduate with absolutely no clue what a lawyer on a daily basis does or why he or she does it. Why are they in law school? Well, they got in, and it seemed like a waste not to go, right?

Wrong. The data is quite robust that lawyers, young ones in particular, suffer from lower life satisfaction than most professionals. It is my belief that these statistics are driven by those who find law practice to be a mismatch between their personality traits (another word for strengths) and the nature of the work. Legal work for young lawyers is repetitious and not very creative. While perfect for some people, the dreamy poet who blew away his law school entrance exam probably is not a good fit for that life.

Know your limitations. In any job. If you are not particularly good at something, you are going to wind up hating it. And if you hate doing something, don’t do it for a living. I repeat, if you hate doing something, don’t do it for a living. You won’t be successful and will live a life filled with frustration.

My goal in this blog is not to be reductionist or pessimistic. To the contrary, wonderful things in life can open to you when you accept the fact you have certain limitations, but along with them certain strengths. Amplify and build on your strengths and quit wasting your time on your weaknesses. You’ll be amazed at what you might accomplish – maybe things you never dared to dream.

Set yourself free. Know your limitations.

(Note – if you would like links to free and useful strengths surveys to do a self-appraisal, please drop me a line or send me a Twitter message @BowlingDan).