When bad things happen just after success, maybe you’ve hit your Upper Limit

I don’t know anyone who wakes up and plans to have an unsuccessful day. Nobody plans to fight with their spouse or clients. No one plans to let projects run late or get sick or spend more than they earn. But these things happen all the time, and some of these things we can control. Which begs the question: “Why do we do such harmful things to ourselves, especially just as things are going so smoothly and we’ve achieved some new level of success?”

That question is exactly what Dr. Gay Hendricks is trying to answer in his book The Big Leap. He calls it The Upper Limit Problem and provides a concise definition of it right at the end of the book with this statement:

The Upper Limit Problem is our universal human tendency to sabotage ourselves when we have exceeded the artificial upper limit we have placed on ourselves.

That’s what the book is about and its goal is to help you identify what is holding you back from further success and how to get past that ceiling you’ve placed on yourself. Its purpose is to help you develop the skill of being able “to identify and transcend our Upper Limit, wherever and whenever we encounter it.”

How does this ceiling manifest itself?

If you buy into Hendrick’s ideas then pretty much every time you get sick or get into a fight with your partner (business or personal), or overspend or fail a client, it can all be traced back to your Upper Limit.

This was one of your biggest clients and you don’t deserve to land clients that big so you miss deadlines and make them angry, pushing yourself back to the level you feel you’re really worth.

Here is a longer definition, straight out of the author’s mouth, to help you understand the concept.

I have limited tolerance for feeling good. When I hit my Upper Limit, I manufacture thoughts that make me feel bad. The problem is bigger than just my internal feelings, though: I seem to have a limited tolerance for my life going well in general. When I hit my Upper Limit, I do something that stops my positive forward trajectory. I get into a conflict with my ex-wife, get into a money bind, or do something else that brings me back down within the bounds of my limited tolerance.

Now the question is, how do we stop this? Many of these feelings of lack of value and deserving come from somewhere far in our past, the result of events we don’t even recognize today. Start by asking yourself these three questions, keeping in mind the answer should be a resounding yes if you want to push past your limit and move to further success.

Am I willing to increase the amount of time every day that I feel good inside?

Am I willing to increase the amount of time that my whole life goes well?

Am I willing to feel good and have my life go well all the time?

With yes firmly affixed in your mind it’s time to become acquainted with Dr. Hendricks’ Zones. We all operate in one of these four zones. Many successful people operate well in Zone 2 and 3. It’s the true superstars that reside in Zone 4 most of the time.

As we look at them, stop and think about which zone you are in.

1. The Zone of Incompetence

The Zone of Incompetence is made up of all the activities we’re not good at. Others can do them a lot better than we can. Surprisingly, many successful people persist in wasting their time and energy doing things for which they have no talent.

For me this is budgeting and accounting. I feel emotionally drained when I have to do these tasks and I’m terrible at them, especially budgeting. This is why I have an assistant to do the accounting and my wife does our budgets. I check in monthly with my wife so I know what the budget is and have a say in any changes.

It’s worthwhile to do something you’re not God at if the intentions is to enjoy or master it.

The big problem for most business owners is that when they start, by necessity they must operate in this zone at least for a while. I had to do my accounting at first because I couldn’t afford to hire someone. The big thing is to not get trapped in this zone because you can’t let go of a task. Delegate items in your Zone of Incompetence as soon as possible. Delegate them in lieu of a raise or a vacation.

2. The Zone of Competence

You’re competent at the activities in the Zone of Competence, but others can do them just as well. Successful people often discover that they expend far too much time and energy in this zone.

This zone is made up of things you can do just as well as anyone else and also often fills up way too much time in the life of a business owner. This would be the writer that not only writes the content for their site and their email list, but then puts the content into their email provider and finds an image and schedules the whole system. Just about anyone can do all of those administrative tasks just as well as the writer, so why are they doing it?

As with the Zone of Incompetence, your business may start with you needing to do tasks in this zone, but you should quickly get them off your plate so you can focus on the next two zones.

3. The Zone of Excellence

In the Zone of Excellence are the activities you do extremely well. You make a good living in your Zone of Excellence. For successful people, this zone is a seductive and even dangerous trap. To remain in this zone is to hobble yourself from taking the leap into your Zone of Genius.

Tasks in this zone you do well, and much better than many of those around you. The problem is that while you do them well and get paid well to do them, they are not the next zone. Here lies comfort and a trap, because if you stay here you’re not living up to your potential.

4. The Zone of Genius

Liberating and expressing your natural genius is your ultimate path to success and life satisfaction. Your Zone of Genius is the set of activities you are uniquely suited to do. They draw upon your special gifts and strengths.

The Zone of Genius is Hendricks’ top zone and the place you should spend most of your time. This is the place where time flies because you’re so enthralled with the work you have to do. In fact, it doesn’t feel like work because if you had free time you’d do it anyway.

The goal of your life should be to spend as much time as possible in the final Zone of Genius, despite the fear that may come along with it. Since many people like a number on it, let’s use the 80/20 rule. Spend 80% of your time in your Zone of Genius, 10% in your Zone of Excellence and then use the last few percent in the latter two zones until you can get those tasks off your plate.

Now that you know what the zones are, how do you get to your Zone of Genius and push past that self-imposed Upper Limit?

Four hidden barriers of the Upper Limit Problem

The false foundation under the Upper Limit Problem is a set of four hidden barriers based on fear and false belief. Every person I’ve worked with has uncovered at least one of the barriers, and sometimes two or three. I’ve never bet anybody who had all four.

Hendricks’ four barriers are:

  1. Feeling fundamentally flawed
  2. Disloyalty and abandonment
  3. Believing that more success brings a bigger burden
  4. The crime of outshining

Those who suffer from the first barrier feel there is something inherently wrong with them inside. When they see success, some voice inside reminds them that they’re broken and don’t deserve the success they’re receiving. They may often aim small so that they don’t hear this voice or so that others don’t see the flaw they’re sure exists.

If you suffer from Disloyalty and Abandonment, you’re worried that if you gain success you’ll be acting disloyal to your roots. This may be seen in the athlete that comes from a bad neighbourhood and when they make it big they spend everything and end up back in the same circumstances they left a few years before. By spending everything they earned over their career, they have maintained their loyalty to their roots and are still where they deserve.

This barrier may be imposed on the successful by the people they grew up with who say they “sold out” with their success and “aren’t the same person.” These comments come out of jealously and fear and we should let them roll off us if possible. If not, then seek professional help to learn to let them roll off you.

Believing that you’re going to be a bigger burden if you’re successful may have been ingrained in you very young. Did your parents make off-hand comments about how much you cost and if you weren’t around they could do so much more? They were telling you that you are a burden, and thus you fear that success may burden those people. Maybe you’re an author, and like Hendricks, when you have your first book published you gift it to your family. When you provide this gift though, your family clearly is all eye rolls as they don’t want to read it, because it’s a burden.

The Crime of Outshining is another barrier brought to us young. In the book Hendricks provides us the example of a client who had a sibling die young of cancer. When large gifts were provided, like a piano, they were always followed by a comment about only being able to afford it because of the death of that sibling. It’s the subtle hints that you better not perform better than other members of your family because they can’t handle it. With this barrier in place, you’ll constantly be looking at the level of success others have and pushing yourself below them so you don’t outshine.

After these four barriers Hendricks talks about a number of other areas in which we ‘Upper Limit’ ourselves. Areas like worry, criticism, and starting conflicts. These are the specific behaviours we engage in to bring ourselves down to our perceived level of deserving. If we want to move past that glass ceiling we have erected we need to stop these behaviours.

Having a few friends that worry about everything, I took these two questions to heart and have posed them more than once when faced with the worries of those friends.

  1. Is it a real possibility?
  2. Is there any action I can take right now to make a positive difference?

If you’re prone to worry, take these two questions and post them somewhere obvious so that you can ask yourself them regularly throughout the day.

With all the errors covered, it’s time to start building that home in the Zone you want to live in, The Zone of Genius.

Building a home in the Zone of Genius

There is a huge fear underneath every complaint: If I took the Big Leap into my Zone of Genius, I might fail. What if I really opened up to my true genius and found that my genius wasn’t good enough? Better to keep the genie in the bottle and coast along in the Zone of Excellence.

I hope that you want to exist in your Zone of Genius now, but so few people know what that is. Hendricks has a number of great questions throughout the book to help us find our Zone of Genius though. One set of questions I specifically loved goes like this:

  1. I’m at my best when …
  2. When I’m at my best, the exact thing I’m doing is …
  3. When I’m doing that, the thing I love most about it is …

Going through this exercise helped me narrow down what I love about coaching and teaching. It’s the interactions with people and helping them figure out where they’re blocked and finding a path forward through the block to their goals. Even as a teenager, I was the one that friends and neighbours came to when they had an issue. I helped them talk through it and see some paths through it to the other side.

Going through these questions by Hendricks should leave you feeling energized as you anticipate the work that hits your Zone of Genius.

Hendricks also employs the idea of meditation, specifically a ‘mantra’ for you to use in your practice of learning to live in your Zone of Genius. The mantra he provides for the reader is:

I expand in abundance, success, and love every day, as I inspire those around me to do the same.

To really practice this mantra, Hendricks advises us to sit and meditate on it. Yes, truly meditate by repeating the phrase in quiet and then taking two deep breaths to have a quiet mind. These deep breaths leave room for your existing programming to talk back to you and for you to recognize it and put it aside in favour of repeating the mantra.

In addition to choosing to take time out of your days to repeat the mantra, Hendricks advises you to post it in various places as a visual reminder throughout your day. I have a similar practice with a set of Post-It notes above my desk which remind me why I do my work. Having experience with this, I know it helps keep you focused on what matters instead of wandering all the time into the trivial.

Einstein Time and our priorities

You’re where time comes from.

When we say we don’t have the time for that it’s an excuse for something we don’t really want to do. Even if you’re using that statement in reference to some vacation you want to take, you’re saying that it’s not more important than whatever you are currently focused on.

First we need to realize, according to Hendricks, that all the ‘time management’ stuff out there operates on the Newtonian view of time, which says that time is finite and we must carefully manage it out so that we can get stuff done. We can never get more of it.

Moving to Einstein time is that recognition that time is something we make. I’m not sure about that since there is no machine that we can use to make time for us, but the principle is sound.

Hendricks tells us to cut the complaining about time out of our vocabulary and stick with true statements. When your kid comes up and asks you to play Lego don’t tell them you don’t have the time — tell them you want to finish what you’re doing first. Then you can play, or tell them that you don’t want to right now.

Taking control of your time will help you live a life that’s awesome, which is one that’s in your Zone of Genius. Taking this control of your language around time means that you’re going to be honest with yourself. Not being able to say “I don’t have time for that” and telling your kid that you don’t want to, may make you change your mind since you’re finally being honest with yourself.


Overall The Big Leap is an insightful book, but one that meanders a bit. I noticed this most in later chapters when Hendricks would start talking about a concept and spend 90% of a chapter convincing you it was a real thing, and telling you stories about it, without telling you exactly what the concept was or how to use it in your life. The section on Einstein Time was particularly prone to this.

Other than that, it’s a great book. I plan to read it again with my wife and look at how I’m sabotaging my success with Upper Limits I’m not aware of.

I’ll leave you with a final quote from the book which speaks to the self-examination we must do if we really want to be successful. Which type of learner are you going to be?

The universe will teach us our lessons with the tickle of a feather or the whoop of a sledgehammer, depending on how open we are to learning the particular lesson. Getting stubborn and defensive invites the sledgehammer; getting open and curious invites the feather.

Get The Big Leap on Amazon

photo credit: bobsfever cc

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