Where Are Your Limitations?

(Bubba's ex-wife. I debated between this picture and a picture of Bubba).

At dinner that night, Bubba the Love Sponge pulled out a gun from his bag and pointed it at me. It was the first time a gun had ever been pointed at me. This was last Thursday. A few hours earlier I was in his studio watching how a radio show was produced. There was a stripper peeing into a bucket in the middle of the floor. A few feet away, there was a naked blind guy in the shower with other strippers trying to get him excited. The blind guy’s dad brought him to the studio so Bubba could help him “get laid”.

(Bubba’s ex-wife, Heather. I debated between this picture and a picture of Bubba).

All of this is to say, I’m trying to learn radio. But it seems hard. I don’t know if I have what it takes to manufacture shock. That seems to be a particular skill. To know when to take it to an extreme and to know what the limits are. I asked Bubba what the limits were because it seemed like he had none. He said, “I know my audience. They like this stripper stuff. But if the strippers started peeing in each other’s faces that would be no good.”

Every limitation limits us as an artist to some extent. I, for instance, don’t write about my extended family (although my kids and Claudia are fair game, despite their protestations and visions of future therapy sessions for my kids). And I write about dead people in my family. They don’t care. But I write about almost everything else. And sometimes my limitations go past what other people would like but I try to never harm anyone. That’s my rule #1.

I think most people, including myself, live safely within their limits. But here’s why it’s important to constantly test those limits and explore where they lie.

A)     Society. Your limitations are imposed on you by society. People often ask me, “aren’t you afraid what people are going to think about you when you reveal something embarrassing?” The answer is “yes”, I am afraid. If I wasn’t afraid to begin with then I wouldn’t write the article. The article would be boring.

Exploring the edge of your fear is the only way to learn and improve and to combat the brainwashing that society (and your peers, colleagues, bosses, friends, family) constantly impose on you. How do you learn these limitations? Well, at the moment, nobody in my extended family speaks to me anymore. And my kids do: but they are forced to. And I get the occasional death threat and constant hate mail but the occasional good email, which I appreciate.

B)      Business. Going past the limitations of society or your peer group can help you solve problems that nobody has looked at yet. If you are the first guy standing on unexplored territory you can put the flag down and start charging people for it. Going past my limits, going past where everyone said, “you can’t do that!” has been the only way I’ve ever been able to make a living. All my other attempts at making money within the limits of society have resulted in abysmal failure and mockery. Every day I try to brainstorm a list of business ideas that go slightly beyond the limits of whatever I thought before.

C)      Your brain. It turns out that doing something different every day, something you never would’ve thought of doing (a game, asking for a raise, writing a new friend, writing an article, solving a puzzle, learning music, etc), exercises your brain. Your brain is constantly growing. From birth on. We’re the only animal where that happens. By doing something different, you are lighting up new areas of your brain, forcing the neurons and synapses to connect that never have connected before, forestalling Alzheimers and other effects of aging that rage against the brain and against future quality of life.

(the larger the brain, the higher the IQ. Exploring the unknown will make your brain larger).

D)     Art. The more you push at your limitations the more the world becomes your canvas. Why is it so important for the world to be a canvas? Because in between the artist and his canvas is imagination. Better to be playing in the world of imagination than stuck in a nightmare, stuck in the world of the canvas itself. Art helps people see the world in a different way. To make the world your canvas, try to think of people who you can help today. Then the world starts to shape itself according to your own limitations, instead of you being shaped by the world.

E)      Yourself. Some limitations are real. I know, for instance, (through years of bad experience) that I don’t like running a company. So I won’t do that anymore. For the rest of my life? Who knows about tomorrow. But today I won’t be running any companies. I also won’t run a four minute mile. Right now, I hate running.

F)      Yourself, Part II. In the George Lucas movie (pre-Star Wars) THX-1138, the main character was told since birth that if he went “above ground” (everyone lived in a 1984-style world underground) that he would be burned by radiation and die a horrible death. At the end, he goes above ground and it’s beautiful. His life gets saved. Sometimes expanding your limits means you expand yourself, means you live a larger life in every way: physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually. In each of those categories I try to explore the limits every day. I try to go “above ground” in some way every day.

How do you explore your limits? I don’t know. I tried to figure out an easy formula for that for this article. But I only know what it’s like for me to explore my limits. I do it by:

–          Questioning everything. Writing if the answers come up different than I thought. (college, home, voting, Europe, war, religion, etc)

–          Writing about everything that made me feel a certain way. Or things I was ashamed of but I learned from. (failure at business, relationships, etc).

–          Not being afraid to contact people “out of my league”.

–          Exploring. Whether its spiritual. Or through reading. Or visiting a new place. Or going further in exercise. Or even trying to do nothing when expectations are to do something.

–          Considering myself an expert in anything until proven otherwise. Often I’m proven not an expert – right where my limits are.

I watched in the studio as Bubba kept taking the scene higher and higher, breaking through everyone’s limitations: the blind guy, the strippers, the audience in front of him, his listeners. He said to me afterwards, “one of the girls had to go to the bathroom. So I thought, ‘we have a bucket in the middle of the room’. Then another girl was thirsty so of course…” And things took off from there.

Not everyone needs to push to those limits. For Bubba it’s his job.

For me, I’m just happy he didn’t pull the trigger.

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  • pcastela

    1st comment: great post! keeps me motivated to push my limits, too. thanks James!

  • http://twitter.com/NoahLampert NoahLampert

    As long as you’re not harming anyone it’s extremely liberating to test your limits.

    Everyone has skills, talents, beliefs that they don’t know exist. But they do exist and when you start looking for them, you can bet they start turning up.
    Excellent post as always, James.

  • http://blog.jimgrey.net/ Jim

    I lived in Terre Haute, Indiana, at the same time Bubba was getting his start in radio in that little city. This was the mid-late 1980s. His show was a lot tamer then.

    I have found that limits can actually foster creativity. Sure, explore your limits. Push past them when you can. But sometimes when a limit is real and immovable, it forces you to look deeper within, or go a new direction you might not otherwise have explored. My best, most creative work has happened when I’ve hit a hard limit and have had to regroup.

    • http://jamesaltucher.com James Altucher

      Yes, thats very interesting. Hitting a limit and then being creative about how to not let that limit stop you is exhilarating.

  • Aldog

    I love youre recommendation onw riting down ideas; inside my “stuff” drawer in my cubcicle I have my own “Idea Sheet”…its not bad-but I do find that executing is a big dilemma, especially when a lot of ideas are for ya know-apps or web-based products for which I lack programming skills…anyway, any advice on executing? I sometimes get that feeling that I write these ideas down, dont execute, in 2 years someone else does the same-and womp-depression/regret/negative energy ensues.

  • Jeff

    Bubba The Love Sponge was laid-off from satellite radio a few years ago.
    I believe the reason Bubba was laid-off was he wasn’t really innovator so much as a copier of Howard Stern. Howard Stern is a pioneer in the field of testing the limits of ‘shock-radio’. After Howard brakes ground on a new concept, a lot of other radio shows and even television shows pick up the idea and do something very similar to it.
    It goes to show that sometimes being bold isn’t enough. You also have to be creative.

  • http://twitter.com/priteshdesai Pritesh Desai

    Learning something new is a very powerful idea. It does open up several new avenues for you. Recently I learned rubix cube and i’m trying to learn guitar.

  • Ctreporter

    Ah…discovering your limits and potentials…that’s me too. I’ve kept all of my calendar diaries since I was about 16 years old. So I’ve always kept a journal of my life. It’s only been very recently where I’ve felt the need to write more extensively in a blog format. Reading your blog helps loosen things up sometimes. I know my recent writing habit is happening now because I’m stuck at the moment. I’m discovering my limits through writing and I’m finding out that I have potential in other areas. The biggest thing I’m finding in myself is acceptance. I’m ok right where I am. I can apply myself to whatever it is I’m doing at that moment, and that’s what makes me happy. I would love to branch off in a new career, but I have yet to discover what that could possibly be. I’ll just keep writing and enjoy it for what it’s worth. Hopefully other people like it too.

  • http://twitter.com/runningdmc Dawn Casey-Rowe

    This is a great one–a good reminder to let the mind reach for the stars rather than put us behind bars.

  • Sue

    Bubba is getting paid for the shock. The people who participate in it do not get compensation. So what is in it for them? Do they enjoy being degraded by peeing in a bucket in a radio studio? Is there some kind of sick psychological pay off for these women?

    And what about the blind guy in the shower. Seriously his father should be teaching his son how to talk to women, so he doesn’t have to spend time trying to get laid in a shower for radio. That blind guy is lucky he is blind because if he could see himself he would be disgusted or maybe aroused (who knows). His father is just using his son to get off. Which opens up another batch of questions I certainly do not want to have to come with answers to.

    The fact that there is an audience for this just shows the true depths of human depravity. The person sitting next to you in a college class, someone you work with, a friend, a family member, a stranger could all have some hidden facade that they never show to anyone. In private you may have a whole new disgust for someone who you once respected and looked up to.

    Push the envelope, sure why not. I often wonder why pushing the envelope is so often associated with vulgarity. Is this what most people really are. Just animals trying to get their lusts satisfied at any price?

    It seems the masses are just a bunch of monkey’s throwing feces at the rest of the population.

    • http://jamesaltucher.com James Altucher

      I guess I wonder about this on a lot of levels. I don’t know what “depravity” really means. I mean, Snooki gets on the bestseller list. The NY Times best selling issues deal with war tragedies. National Geogrpahic has the goriest shows possible in their “Taboo” show and then when I do this blog I wonder, “what am I doing?” Who knows what people are interested in? I try to help with this blog but maybe people don’t want help. They want feces thrown at them. They want Snooki and “Taboo”s. Who knows? Sometimes its frustrating to see what’s out there.

      • Sue

        That’s the thing. My definition of depravity can be different then yours. What I consider depraved you may consider normal and vice versa. Thus the complications that arise when dealing with people. They say one thing but do something completely different behind closed doors. The rarity is the person who is exactly what you see, whether in public or private.

        It seems the more vulgar a person is the more money they make. It’s almost like bad behavior is rewarded and the envelope is pushed that much further for the next person to get noticed.

        Of course it helps that powerful people control the mass media outlets and decide what is shown on TV and in the movies. Are they giving the people what they want or are they trying to create a new definition of morality?

        You do become what you watch on TV or listen to on the radio or even the people you associate with in your day to day life. These things become your new definition of normal and acceptable behavior.

      • kamalravikant

        In my opinion, James, the more of a gong show it is out there, the more there is an underlying hunger for truth, for what really matters. And that is what you offer. The circus, no one remembers, they come and go. Sharing truth that helps people, that lasts.

  • http://bclund.com/ bclund

    I struggle with limits and where they are when I write as well…i.e. should I mention this incident, will somebody be offended if I swear, am I revealing too much of myself, etc.

    Usually the way it works for me is that even if I am uncomfortable with what I’ve written, if it is honest and rings true to me (as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody), I hit “publish” and let the chips fall where they may.

    I think that is the only way you can aspire to create any type of “art” that has meaning, though it often flies in the face of being “successful” at it.

  • American Expat

    That was a brave post for you, James. I can see the hands flying for the unsubscribe button. Whether it was effective, I don’t know. As someone who has been well immersed in stuff far exceeding what you describe here, I came to appreciate the Japanese concept of honne and tatemae. Those words don’t describe a new bizarre fetish, but are the cultural opposite of the American “let’s be honest about everything, and hide nothing” concept – also know as “everybody’s stuff is in your face.”

    As Sue said, “The person sitting next to you in a college class, someone you work with, a friend, a family member, a stranger could all have some hidden facade that they never show to anyone.”
    Unfortunately, she inadvertently describes Japan, not the US. The problem in the US is that this is all over the place, including public broadcast radio. Nobody hides their perversions in the US, they wear them on their sleeve in many cases. Our culture is increasingly vulgar and coarse as a result.

    In fact, this stuff is so pervasive that it even slips into otherwise respectable personal improvement articles about personal limits. And I think you did exceed your limits here. The story was not especially revelatory about limits – it was there for shock value and cheap theatrics. And probably unnecessarily alienated a good portion of your readers – people who would otherwise benefit from your usually very well written posts.

    Plenty of respectable people in Japan are into all kinds of wild stuff, but for the most part they don’t talk about it. Even when people pretty much know what they are into, they don’t talk about it to the general public. In a sense, Japan is much more liberated than the US – because they accept that people can have private activities that are at odds with their public roles. And as long as it’s kept private, they basically don’t care. It’s when people choose to make it public that it’s seen as vulgar or egregiously indiscreet.

    So you drifted off in an attempt to make the post edgy (not boring), and instead succumbed to the garden variety vulgarity that is so normal these days.

    In that sense, this was a great post about limits. You crossed yours. Maybe this was a work of genius, and that was the intent. If so, my hat is off to you (but please make sure it’s dry when you return it).

    • http://twitter.com/DiarmuidOM Diarmuid ÓMuirgheasa

      I don’t know if liberated is the word I’d use for that. “We know about it, and it’s fine, but don’t even dare acting as if you KNOW we know about it. DON’T BREAK THE FAÇADE” – just seems hypocritical. But that’s not to say I necessarily prefer the polar opposite either. As always, there’s gotta be some middle ground there.

  • DanK

    James, what do you think about Bubba’s radio company – ioRadio? How did you come to get on his show?

  • charlieprimero

    With maturity you will discover that there are no limits. There are only choices. You can choose to grow, or deteriorate.

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/E6B5U6FTMFXFTNA747IA2BQGLI Mark B

    This is a cool website – James, great advice. A joke about limitations:

    “A man was lying in
    bed on a Saturday morning. His wife said to him, “Get out of bed and go to “shul”.
    “I don’t want to go to shul”, said he, “and there are three
    reasons for that. First, I am tired. Second, I don’t like the service and I
    really dislike the sermons. Third, the
    congregation doesn’t like me.” So
    his wife said, “Those excuses are no good.
    Get out of bed and go to shul for three reasons. First, a decent Jewish
    family goes to shul together. Second, God
    will never forgive you, if you don’t come to shul. And third, you are the
    rabbi.””

  • https://twitter.com/jazztizz Niki Flow

    This blog on limitations so helpful to me. I am constantly looking for fresh ideas (which I see as keys) to free me from this mind prison where I have lived since 2000. I have to push my limitations and comfort zones every day or they shrink and choke me. I live in a flexible prison of panic and agoraphobia. If I don’t push, the boundaries become more rigid until I find, again, that it requires superhuman effort to make the slightest dent in this “wall.” If too much time passes without pushing, the wall starts to shrink again. It never goes away completely. The good news is that the initial few days of pushing are all I need to get me back to where I dropped off before I gave up last.

    An example: I spent three weeks after the 1-year anniversary of my dad’s death, and the 29-year anniversary of losing my son at a stand still. I didn’t push. I just sat down and covered myself in grief. The boundaries slowly caved in around me until even looking through a window made me gasp for air. After a few weeks of being nowhere, I pushed back in one-minute increments (I used a stop watch on my phone). I had to dive inside for the first two days. By the third day, the walls popped back out to where they were. So I believe this mind prison is powered only by where I “see” the limitations. My vision is obscured and warped by fear, and fear only takes hold when I forget or refuse to melt it with my rituals.

    I can only challenge my mind prison by pushing, and I can only be brave enough to push by living intentionally using the tools that work. I know this prison is made of smoke. Belief is the only thing that gives it substance, but I don’t know how to UN-believe it. Knowledge isn’t enough, but knowledge plus action seems to be the only thing that gives me breathing room. I don’t know if this condition or disease or whateverthisis is curable, but it’s become at least manageable. I would be very interested to know what you think, since you have been through it.

    Thank you for another great article — shiny, new keys. I’m a new reader to your blogs, and I have enjoyed every single one I’ve read so far, very much. Niki

  • Liliana Tamayo

    This reading made my day today, thank you very much for that. Do you remember that somber email I sent to you a few weeks ago??? It doesn’t matter, I contacted you, and you responded, and you were “out my league”. So I guess I went above ground for once, and that was a good thing.