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Four Things We Can Learn from Embracing Our Limitations

02/14/2014 09:06 am ET | Updated Apr 16, 2014

Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

When artist Phil Hansen's hand first began to tremble, he fought against the shake. "If I just hold my pen a little tighter," he thought, "the trembling will stop." But holding on tighter did not solve the tremor--it only made it worse. Eventually, Hansen dropped out of art school, fearing he could no longer create the art he had always wanted to. But today, he is a successful artist who has inspired millions with his story.

Listening to Hansen's powerful TED talk, I was reminded of ways in which unforeseen circumstances, and the suffering they bring, has an impact on how we perceive ourselves, and our abilities. When disappointing events befall us, it is our natural inclination to fight against the pain and try to move away from it in some way. For Hansen, this once meant turning his back on a profession--a passion--that he loved. Yet his journey back to creating art highlights what can happen when we accept, even embrace, our limitations. Hansen reminds us that our pain is often our greatest teacher. When we become more intimate with emotionally painful circumstances, we open ourselves up to what these struggles can teach us.

Here are four things we can all learn from Phil Hansen:

Show up for the process. How many times have you fantasized about the outcome of a project before it has even started? I remember when I began graduate school; I fantasized about earning my doctorate before I had even taken my first grad school class. When we live too much in the future or the past, we miss out on the present moment. Hansen reminds us that when we become too attached to outcomes, we foreclose on being present for the journey. When he gave himself permission to "show up for the process," he immersed himself in an artistic journey that was no longer attached to the finished product.

Seize limitation. Limitations are painful. For Hansen, his fears about his hand tremor caused him just as much suffering as the tremor itself. Why? Because he was attached to creating art in a certain way. Sound familiar? While we might not all aspire to be artists or painters, I am sure we can all relate to the suffering that ensues when we struggle with accepting our circumstances. Too often, we hold on too tightly to what we wish for instead of accepting what is. Hansen teaches us to seize our limitations, and by doing so open ourselves up to what is possible. Whether or not it is a creative endeavor, balancing our budget, or parenting, when we can work with what we have, we can navigate our circumstances in an entirely different light.

Step inside your box. Too often we think that in order to create or achieve greatness, we have to "step outside of the box"--in other words, re-define, recreate, or scramble to find a way to become bigger, better, and more novel. When we engage in this thinking, interestingly enough, our attention focuses outward, and we become less connected with who we are. By "stepping inside the box," Hansen says, we can embody authenticity, and utilize that which is truly important to us.

Embrace your narrative. Even when life does not follow your intended path, it's not the end of your story. When Hansen finally embraced his imperfection, he found he could create art like he never imagined. The lines might not have been straight or "perfect," but by letting himself draw crooked lines, he discovered a new stride to his creativity. If Hansen continued to believe that his hand tremor had ended his artistic career, the story would have stopped there. But because he was open to the advice his neurologist shared with him--"Embrace the shake!"--he was able to lean into his limitation and discover new ways to create art. By doing so, he rewrote his story.

In the end, it wasn't his doctor's words that set Hansen free from the pain of his hand tremor; it was his own ability to embrace and live out those words, and find meaning in what he had experienced. When he learned to "embrace" his wound, he further unleashed his artistic gifts and found ways to share it with the world. In our struggles, too, there can be unexpected gifts--we just have to be open to receiving them.

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