Over the last several months, I have written numerous articles about not giving up, persevering, and being determined to achieve your goals. I fully stand by everything that I have written, but like everything I talk about you have to have balance. There are times in life when you have to know when to say when. You need to be able to recognize situations where no matter how hard you fight, you simply will not be able to accomplish your objective, or even if you do succeed in your task, the price you have to pay will not be worth the reward. You have to know your limits and be willing to accept that sometimes you simply must concede defeat. While this may seem to be in opposition to everything I have written thus far, knowing your limits is actually a necessary skill you have to master in order to be successful in pursuing your dreams.
When I was in my third year of graduate school, I had a lot going on. I was working 30 hours a week as a statistical consultant. I was spending 15 hours a week doing research with my advisor and working on my thesis. I also was spending 15 hours a week in class or studying. All together, that comes to 60 hours of work and class every week. On top of all of these academic and professional obligations, I was also trying to maintain some semblance of a social life by going out with friends on the weekends. For an able-bodied person, this would be a lot to manage and stay mentally and physically healthy, but for someone who is as weak and fragile as I am, this is borderline masochistic. Even though I knew that I was wearing myself out by burning the candle at both ends, I was naive enough to think I was invincible and refused to slow down. I continued to live this strenuous schedule until my body finally said, “enough is enough.”
Throughout the Fall of that year, I was hospitalized several times for exhaustion and dehydration, because I was pushing myself so hard. The first few times I was admitted, even though my doctors would tell me I was working too hard, I would make excuses for why I was so rundown and go right back to my fast-paced lifestyle. After my fourth trip to the hospital in as many months though, thankfully one of my physicians finally made me see the severity of my situation, and what I was doing to myself. This doctor looked at me and said, “Scott, you are killing yourself. You are literally working yourself to death. If you don’t slow down soon, you are going to die.” This blunt account of my situation was the wake up call I needed to scare me into changing my ways. For the first time I was able to clearly see the enormous price I was paying to maintain my busy schedule, and I realized that the risk was not worth the reward.
While the doctors wanted me to cut the number of hours I worked down to 20 a week, since I wanted to stay at 60, I decided to compromise and scale back to a 40 hour week. I never like having to ask for special treatment because of my disability, and I was nervous about going to my superiors and asking for them to reduce my workload, but this was a life or death situation so I had to bite the bullet. When I anxiously went to my boss and my advisor to discuss reducing my hours, they both smiled and said basically the same thing. They both said that they were pleased with my work and progress through the program, and that I needed to take care of myself first. They also said they would rather have me work 40 hours a week and be healthy enough to finish and contribute to the program over the next three years, than have me work 60 hours a week and have to leave early for health reasons. After talking with them, I not only felt much better, but I was able to cut down my schedule without jeopardizing my work or progress towards my thesis.
This story from my life always reminds me of the importance of knowing your limits. If I had not changed my ways and adopted a less physically demanding schedule, there is no doubt that I would have failed to complete the graduate program and obtain my master’s degree. Even more importantly, chances are that without this wake up call I would have done serious, permanent damage to my body, or worse yet, endangered my life. I had to realize that while mentally I have the strength and determination to achieve anything I set my mind to, physically my body has limits. There are going to be situations where no matter how hard I try, my body simply will not allow me to succeed. While this is a difficult reality to accept, it is better to know and come to terms with my limitations, than to waste time and energy on tasks I cannot complete.
You know by now that I don’t let the fact that I have spinal muscular atrophy and use a wheelchair dictate how I live my life. I refuse to allow my physical disability to prevent me from experiencing everything that the world has to offer. That being said, I also recognize, that like everyone else, there are certain things that I cannot do. Just like, no matter how much effort they put in my mother cannot dunk a basketball and my sister cannot be an astronaut, I have limits. It is important to realize that having and knowing your limits is not a sign of weakness, but a show of intelligence, courage, and strength. If you are wise enough to know your limits and brave and strong enough to accept them, you will be able to recognize situations where you are not going to succeed. This will prevent you from wasting time and energy on impossible pursuits, and instead use those resources to accomplish other goals and dreams.
Like every life skill that I write about, you have to find the right balance between knowing your limits and never giving up. This balance between giving everything you have to achieve your goals and knowing when to say when is one of the most difficult things to master, but it is also one of the most important and rewarding. Many of the mental tools I have already written about can aid you in finding the best balance for your life. Trust your instincts and take the time to think about what you are doing and why you are doing it. Remember that there are always multiple ways to get from point A to point B and look for creative solutions to overcome your obstacles. By employing these tools and knowing your limits you will be able to tell what situations to avoid and which to work to achieve no matter what. Most importantly, when in doubt, go for your dream. It is much easier to accept that you have wasted some time on something you cannot do, than to regret not taking a chance on something you could have accomplished.