Blog Post: The Goodness of Limitations  



I think it was Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry character who quipped, “A man’s got to know his limitations.”  As coaches, we tend to be anti-limitations.  Many of our clients are held back by limiting beliefs, assumptions, and perspectives.  We often encourage clients to think bigger and to stretch beyond the constraints that they allow to hold them back.  But maybe some limits are good.  In fact, maybe we coaches can serve our clients by helping them know their limitations.  

I’ve learned to recognize the positive power some limits can have on my life and for my clients.  Let me share three specific limitations that serve to help us make the most of life. 


I had a client whose business success made him intolerable.  Everyone at work cut a wide swath for him because he was the boss.  For many years, they tolerated and even celebrated his worst behaviors because they feared any pushback on their part would result in him kicking them off the gravy train.  This dynamic proved unfortunate for him.  His wife grew tired of his unlimited self-expression and left him.  His business partner stopped partnering as much and the business suffered.  Some key customers reminded him that their feelings, tastes, and desires also mattered, and they graduated to become “former customers.”  Eventually, his success dried up because his work ethic, intelligence, and business savvy were overshadowed by his unwillingness to honor other people.   

Psychologist Jordan Peterson offers a rule for life: “Don’t let your kids do anything that makes you dislike them.”  Why?  Because nobody else is going to like them either, and that is a very bad way for the kid to go through life.  Obviously, this rule has limits, but the spirit of the rule is that relationships naturally and appropriately place a limit on the individual’s behavior, and this is good for both the individual and the people around them.  Theologian Stanley Hauerwas echoes this sentiment when he says that having children is an act of hospitality.  These poor, powerless beings of low influence impinge upon our individual rights and place severe limits on our selfish ambitions.   

To be in healthy relationship with another healthy person requires you to hold back.  This is true for personal relationships as well as for society at large.  After all, society has rules, and such rules restrict our behavior in appropriate ways so things go smoothly with other people.  This is not a popular sentiment.  Movies, advice columns, and general sentiment for the past few decades encourages us to break free from relational and societal constraints so we can live our best life now – whatever that means. 

As coaches, we serve our clients by drawing their attention to the feedback that naturally comes from the relationships they are in.  If they are paying attention, the people around them will set limitations for them – limits that will help them avoid the worst behaviors and practice the better behaviors.  Thank goodness for this feedback loop – otherwise, most of us would live self-referential lives of misery.   


The Christian faith is not the story of an all-powerful God granting you and me unlimited freedom to be, become, and do what we want.  Rather, it is a much more powerful story of finding our perfection through the narrow Way that is Jesus.   

Faith provides life-giving limits.  There are, of course, moral, and ethical limitations such as those outlined in the Ten Commandments.  These limitations allow us to live rightly with God, others, and ourselves.  Faith also provides psychological and philosophical limitations.  Christian belief forces us from a place of pride to a posture of humility.  After all, if God is God, then neither you nor I are God.  It does us much good to get knocked down a few notches to where we truly belong – “a little lower than the angels.” (Heb 2:7) Knowing our place in the order of things allows us to thrive in the reality that best supports human flourishing.  

One of the ways I bring the beautiful limitations of faith into my coaching work is by reminding my Christian clients that scripture is normative.  While my client might have ideas for how life should work, scripture describes the truth of how life actually works.   

Recently, a client described the pain and frustration of being sabotaged in his leadership efforts as the principal of a school.  He complained that the resistance wasn’t fair, and he vented that God knew he was leading positive change so why was God allowing such fierce opposition?  I gently asked him to point to a person of God in scripture who experienced all ‘green lights’ as they led positive change. He came up empty of an example, but filled with hope that resistance was normative for those who love and serve God.  He didn’t want life to work that way, but it does, and he was wise to adjust to this limitation. 


The truth that death waits for each of us might feel like the ultimate downer, but it’s actually a quite life-giving limitation.  The ancients used the phrase memento mori (Latin for “remember you will die”) to remind them that life is fleeting and to not cling too tightly to ephemeral pleasures, treasures, and preoccupations.  

When a Roman general or emperor returned from a great victory, it was not uncommon for a servant to stand close by and whisper in his ear, “memento mori” or something similar to remind the conqueror that death would eventually conquer him.  This sentiment is echoed in Psalm 90 when Moses asks God to “teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Ps 90:12).   

One of the exercises I use with coaching clients begins by asking the client to write the date they were born, today’s date, and the date they will die.  Nobody likes the third one.  Sometimes I allow them to write an age they think they will be when they die – for some reason this feels a bit less creepy.  The purpose is to help them see the bookend that waits for them after the chapters of their life have been lived and to make the most of the chapters left to be written.   

Remembering my own death focuses my efforts and compels me to be a wise steward of the opportunities, oppositions, days, and decisions over which we have some control in the here and now.  This is one of the reasons I coach.  There will come a day when my energy and effort have few opportunities for investment and will bring very little return where it is invested.  The more I remember my death, the more eager I am to engage in something meaningful – and there is very little in life that is more meaningful to me than to coach others.   

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