Have you ever been challenged by someone to do something you never thought was possible… and did it?
It may have been sheer luck. However, there may just have been something else at work there that you didn’t realize at the time.
What allows us to go beyond what we believe is possible and do so in the most unlikely of situations? It may just be that you’re capable of much more than you ever thought possible.
You just needed the right environment or circumstances to coax it out of you.
That’s exactly what one very famous writer discovered when he was challenged to a most peculiar, and incredibly challenging, bet.
You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself in any direction you choose.
– Dr. Seuss
The $50 bet for 50 words
In 1960, the founder of publishing house Random House Bennett Cerf bet a man by the name of Theo Geisel that it wasn’t possible to write an entertaining children’s book with just fifty total words.
You may know Theo Geisel better as his pen name: Dr. Seuss. And you might recognize the story by those very fifty words:
a, am, and, anywhere, are, be, boat, box, car, could, dark, do, eat, eggs, fox, goat, good, green, ham, here, house, I, if, in, let, like, may, me, mouse, not, on, or, rain, Sam, say, see, so, thank, that, the, them, there, they, train, tree, try, will, with, would, you.
Geisel took the bet and wrote the Dr. Seuss book we all know and love: Green Eggs and Ham. The book became a smash hit, selling over eight million copies to date and helping launch a six-hundred million book sale empire and what may be the most recognizable children’s book collection, and author, of all time.
But the story of Dr. Seuss and Green Eggs and Ham is about much more than just children’s books. It’s a lesson in what we’re capable of as human beings and how to extract greatness from potential.
Parkinson’s Law and the power of self-imposed constraints
So, what can we learn about this practically mythical story about the world’s most famous children’s author?
Dr. Seuss had great skill and talent. There’s no doubt about it.
However, skill and talent are potential and don’t directly correlate with production. In other words, what you can do and what you actually do are two different things.
Dr. Seuss was a talented author, however, what made the incredible challenge he undertook possible was the very nature of challenge itself.
By imposing upon himself such a constraint (i.e. just a 50-word vocabulary) he was forced out of his comfort zone to somewhere he had never gone, somewhere beyond his current known ability.
Parkinson’s Law states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
Before writing Green Eggs and Ham, Dr. Seuss wrote The Cat in the Hat, another classic that needs no introduction. That same Mr. Cerf challenged Seuss then as well to write a book with just two-hundred and fifty-five different words.
At the time, that was enough of a challenge. But he did it.
Fast forward, Green Eggs and Ham was roughly five times a greater challenge than the first. Each time that challenge pushed Seuss to go further, to get better, to hone his craft to the point of mastery. Each time he fit himself to the constraints of the challenge.
Using the power of self-imposed constraints to step beyond yourself
You can use this principle to push yourself past your known limits as well.
Have an important project you need to complete next week? Schedule the next two days to complete it no matter what. By end of the day, it must be complete. Add on top of that a little incentive to motivate yourself and you’ve got the proper inspiration to undertake the challenge.
Only have fifteen minutes a day to workout? Set yourself to make that fifteen minutes as intense as an entire thirty minutes of exercise otherwise would be.
I’ve used this same principle in my own life with my craft (writing) and my daily workflow constantly, each time getting a little bit better or more productive because I placed upon myself constraints that were just beyond what I believed I could accomplish.
You won’t always accomplish the thing you set out to do. However, imposing constraints in this way is always a powerful catalyst for improvement and helping push beyond yourself.