Episode: Do You Have an Upper Limit Problem

This episode of Lead to Win is brought to you by 5 Days to Your Best Year Ever, an online course to help you set powerful goals and actually achieve them. Find out more at

Michael Hyatt: Winston Churchill was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty when he was just 36. That’s like secretary of the navy. During World War I, he oversaw the Gallipoli campaign. That was one of the boldest strategies of the war, but it was a disaster. Churchill was forced to resign, and it looked like the end of his career.

Failure is a huge obstacle. Most of us never get over it, but when he was essentially kicked out of the navy Churchill joined the army. He volunteered to serve on the front lines, and he personally made 36 runs into no man’s land. He developed a new set of skills, worked hard, and regained his reputation. When it looked like his career was over, he found a way to reinvent himself.

Megan Hyatt Miller: It isn’t just iconic leaders who do that. A lot of average people find a way to push through whatever stands between them and their dream. Like Claire Malone. She worked for the state of New York for her whole career and then retired. Retirement is often a huge crisis for a lot of people because they have to re-envision their lives. If they’re not a teacher or a mailman or an executive, well, who are they? It can be a big problem. But Claire had no trouble seeing herself in a different role. She began training as a yoga instructor, and at age 70 she was the oldest person to finish her class. Now she teaches yoga five days a week in her dining room.

Michael: Then there’s Julia Hartz. She was a TV executive and worked on some really big shows, shows like The Shield and Rescue Me. It seems like a dream job. Right? But she didn’t really like it. Trapped in a boring career. That’s where a lot of people get stuck, but Julia saw herself somewhere else. So while pregnant, she decided to leave her job and start a company with her husband. You might have heard of it. It’s called Eventbrite. They help people sell tickets to their own events.

After a lot of hard work, it took off, and they’ve sold millions of tickets for concerts, conferences, art shows, anything you can imagine. Julia said, “What I learned in those first six months is that this was opening up a part of me that had always been there. It was part of the reason that I didn’t love school, because I love to learn by doing.”

Megan: What all of these people have in common is that they overcame an invisible barrier between them and their eventual success. So let me ask you a big question. What’s the real barrier between you and your dream?

Michael: Hi, I’m Michael Hyatt.

Megan: And I’m Megan Hyatt Miller.

Michael:  And this is Lead to Win, our weekly podcast to help you win at work, succeed at life, and lead with confidence. In this episode, we’re going to tackle something called the upper limit problem, which could be the one thing standing between you and your dreams.

Megan: As leaders, we all have big goals, but most of us have at least one limiting belief that keeps us from achieving them. Here at Michael Hyatt & Company we coach leaders every day who have some inner barrier to their success. Today, we’ll identify the three most common limiting beliefs. We want to help you avoid being stuck for another year and get out of your own way.

Michael: This topic gets me super excited, because this is exactly where so many people get stuck.

Megan: Yes. And it’s often invisible. Right?

Michael: It is, totally. We often talk about it under the umbrella of liberating truths and limiting beliefs, but today we’re talking about some of the most powerful ones. Somebody else has framed this as the upper limit problem, specifically Gay Hendricks, who wrote a book called The Big Leap. That book was a game changer for me. Did you read it?

Megan: I did, and I loved it.

Michael: This upper limit problem… Let’s describe what it is.

Megan: First of all, it’s feeling like you don’t deserve success. Hendricks says, “Each of us has an inner thermostat setting that determines how much love, success, and creativity we allow ourselves to enjoy.” That’s a really sobering thought, because what it means is we’re going to sabotage ourselves once we hit that upper limit.

Michael: The idea is as you approach that limit… It’s, again, invisible, largely unconscious. We’re unaware of it. As we approach that, then we start engaging in this self-sabotage behavior that keeps us from passing that limit. Like you said, there’s that feeling that we don’t deserve success, and you might be thinking in various contexts, “I don’t deserve to be in this room. Who am I to think that I belong here?” or “When people find out I’m an imposter, I’m going to get fired” or “All of these people are better than me. I’m the least qualified person to be in this room.” When you feel that, you’re bumping up against your upper limit.

Megan: It can also look like negative self-talk. Everyone has failure and setbacks, but when that happens you might slip into this negative self-talk where you say things like, “I’m so stupid” or “I knew it was a mistake to try this” or “I’m such a loser.” When you say things like that, you’re talking yourself out of trying again because you’re bumping up against that upper limit. This is like the “voice in your head” kind of stuff that we don’t like to talk about a lot but is really powerful.

Michael: You know where I experience this a lot? On the golf course. This is why I’m not on the senior pro tour.

Megan: Do you really say that to yourself?

Michael: No, that’s not what I say. What I say in the situation… I might have a good game going. I might have a streak of pars going, and then I flub some shot and I say something to myself like, “Well, of course this happened” or “I knew that was going to show up.” It sabotages the rest of my game.

Megan: I find this happens anytime I’m learning something new. For example, I was fly-fishing this summer out in Montana, the first time I had ever fly-fished while floating in a boat. I have done it before wading, which is one set of skills, and then you have to top that with and now you’re moving while doing it. It was really an internal battle of all of these thoughts going through my head. By the time I was done, in my head it was like I should have just stayed home that morning.

Michael: Do you know where I see this showing up in you also, if I can just be so bold?

Megan: Sure.

Michael: I see this in your mother too: when it comes to technology.

Megan: Oh gosh, yeah. Totally.

Michael: You self-sabotage. You bail out before you even give yourself half a chance to learn it.

Megan: It’s true. I’m getting better at this, but it is a challenge for me. It’s true.

Michael: So let’s talk about self-sabotage, because that’s another element of this whole thing.

Megan: Again, Hendricks says, “When we exceed our inner thermostat setting, we will often do something to sabotage ourselves, causing us to drop back into the old, familiar zone where we feel secure.”

Michael: The crazy thing about that feeling secure is oftentimes it’s not performing. We feel secure in not performing instead of being out there on the edge where we go, “Whoa! This is new. I haven’t really performed at this level before, so I need to get back to what’s familiar.” What are some examples of self-sabotage?

Megan: Like staying up late on the night before a big presentation or going on a binge when you’re very close to your fitness goal or blowing off the final exam just before you graduate. These are all good examples. When you do this, you’re re-leveling yourself.

Michael: Ooh, I love that idea.

Megan: Again, this is kind of a sobering concept, because this is kind of an insidious pattern that can develop, where if we’re not self-aware it’ll take us down.

Michael: Actually, you’re leveling down, not leveling up. You’re trying to get back to that comfortable zone that’s familiar.

Megan: By the way, comfortable doesn’t mean you enjoy it; it just means it’s predictable. It’s like we’re seeking certainty, I think is what’s happening.

Michael: Everybody has an upper limit problem or a self-defined maximum success. I love the thermostat metaphor. That’s perfect. Your thermostat may be pretty high, but you probably have a thermostat. These are based entirely on limiting beliefs. We have three limiting beliefs to share with you today. I’m going to let you go first, so take the first one.

Megan: The first limiting belief is “I don’t deserve success.” This is really a personal objection to our own success. Obviously, we all think we want to achieve or be successful. Emphasis on the word think. Sometimes in the back of our mind we really don’t. We know the worst things about ourselves, like our failures, the bad things we’ve done, our limitations, and we harbor this secret belief that we’re not good enough.

Like, “I’ve been divorced, so I don’t deserve a happy marriage” or “I failed in a big way, so I can’t be trusted as a leader” or “I’ve been in jail” or “I lose my temper” or “I drink too much.” These lead to that imposter syndrome that most of us, as leaders, have felt, where we feel like we don’t belong and we’re deathly afraid of other people finding us out. You talked about this when you were at Thomas Nelson, when you were the CEO there in the early days.

Michael: I think it goes back to the fact that I had this business failure in the early 90s that really knocked my legs out from under me in terms of confidence. I thought, “I can aspire to a certain level of leadership, but I never want to be the top guy in charge, because when I did that previously I failed at it. So I need to be following somebody who really knows what’s going on.”

Well, suddenly I found myself that top guy. There was nobody else to appeal to. I remember feeling deep inside, “Oh my gosh. I’m just faking it. Eventually they’re going to find out. I’m going to be removed from this position, and it’s not going to work.” So yeah, that’s kind of the imposter syndrome. Have you ever experienced that?

Megan: Oh, totally. I feel like every year…

Michael: Not counting last week.

Megan: Yeah, I was going to say, I feel like I experience it every year, because our business is growing so fast that every year what’s required of me is something I haven’t done before. This is something we see also in the business owners and leaders we coach. This is in common. If you were to stand in front of a room of 200 or 300 people full of leaders and ask them this question, they would all raise their hands, because this is totally common for people who are on the edge of their abilities all the time.

Michael: It’s like showing up on a different playing field or a different level of sports every year. Last year you were playing high school varsity, this year it’s college, next year it’s the pros, whatever is beyond that. It’s a completely different level of play each year, so it’s constantly unfamiliar and it constantly makes you feel like you’re an imposter.

Megan: You have to learn to tolerate the uncomfortable feelings, because at the same time this self-talk that’s negative is going in your head, like, “I’m stupid” or “Who do I think I am to aspire to this?” or “Why would anybody want me for this role?” It’s a powerful limiting belief, because in a small part it’s based on the truth. We all have faults or failures and sins. No one is more aware of that than we are, so it’s kind of in the back of our minds. We see all of the ways we could fail and why we don’t deserve it, and that shame we have keeps us from flying too high.

Michael: I want to challenge this limiting belief in a different way than maybe people would think. The limiting belief is “I don’t deserve success,” and you might think the liberating truth is, “I do deserve success.” I would never say that. Would you?

Megan: No.

Michael: Why?

Megan: Because I think it’s earned, first of all. I don’t deserve anything. I’m not entitled or owed anything. I think that’s a really dangerous place to find yourself in, and as a leader, that’s a setup for a real narcissistic, toxic way of being. So I think it’s earned, and I think success is the result of all kinds of factors.

Michael: I definitely think there’s an aspect of success that’s earned, but I also have to acknowledge, and I think you’ll agree with this, there’s also a sense in which it’s a gift.

Megan: Totally.

Michael: I didn’t just earn this all by myself. Even if I did all of the right things, it takes more than just me to create success. The fact that I was born into this culture in North America…

Megan: At this time.

Michael: …that I have the parents I have, that I had access to certain things I had access to, that I have friends I have, that I had the opportunities to work where I worked. All of that created a web of success. I think there are two things we have to keep in mind when it comes to this. First of all, there’s our own sense of agency, and that’s where the earned part of it comes in, but then there’s also this sense of just being blessed or being gifted, that even when we’ve worked hard we can’t just pat ourselves on the back and say, “You know what? I pulled myself up by my own bootstraps. I made this happen.”

Megan: It’s kind of anti-individualism, is what you’re really advocating.

Michael: Yeah, exactly. It’s both/and.

Megan: To get over this limiting belief we have to realize our past does not determine our future. Sure, everybody is flawed, but we have to be willing to enjoy the gifts and the grace from others, and we also have to be willing to accept and enjoy our achievements. That’s kind of like what you’re saying. That’s kind of like the two halves of the whole there.

Michael: This goes back to the blessing idea or the idea of it being a gift. I think it’s like every good thing we receive from God, or however you believe about that. For me, it’s not that I deserve it. It’s not even that I earned it, but I’m going to receive it as a blessing and be thankful. That keeps me from self-sabotaging.

Megan: You know what’s interesting? “I don’t deserve success” is kind of like its own narcissism. It’s as though what I think about my success is ultimately determinative and it’s all about me anyway, instead of realizing… It doesn’t acknowledge the gifts we are given that we don’t earn. Certainly we have a part in that, but it’s very self-focused.

Michael: Well, think about this: when somebody pays somebody else a compliment. There are a couple of different ways to respond to that. One is to deflect, which is kind of self-centered in a way, like, “Oh, well, it was nothing. Whatever.” The other way is to pat yourself on the back. This is kind of apropos to what we’re talking about here. I find just a simple acknowledgement, like “Thank you.” That’s how I want to stand with success. I want to be grateful.

Megan: Just gratitude.

Michael: Just gratitude.


Mike Boyer: Hey, everyone. Mike Boyer here once again. Did you know that Michael Hyatt magazine is a free electronic resource that digs deeper into the theme of each podcast? This week’s issue contains a great article by Erin Wildermuth on the science behind record-breaking performances. You can check it out at

While you’re there, check out the show notes for this episode. They include a complete transcript of today’s show, plus links to two fascinating books mentioned today: The Big Leap by Gay Hendricks and Daring Greatly by Brené Brown. Before I go, let me ask one small favor. If you haven’t yet subscribed to Lead to Win, would you do that right now? You can do it easily on iTunes or wherever you listen. If you need help, just visit Now back to the show.


Megan: So, the first limiting belief is “I don’t deserve success.” What’s the second?

Michael: The second is “My ambition is a betrayal of my roots.” If the first limiting belief was kind of a personal limiting belief, this is more of a tribal one, I would call it. The idea is that if I change I’m going to leave my family or my friends or my tribe or my roots behind, and it feels like somehow a betrayal of my core identity. I don’t want to lift myself above my friends and family, because that would be audacious or it would be prideful in some way.

More than that, it feels like it’s abandoning the people who won’t grow or succeed with me. We see this a ton with successful business leaders, because all of a sudden their peer group… They begin to separate from that peer group by virtue of their success, at least in their mind, and it becomes very difficult for them to relate to those people. They self-sabotage so that they don’t leave their friends behind. There’s another alternative to that, but that happens a lot.

Megan: People think things like, “No one else in my family makes this much money” or “We’re simple, humble people. We don’t believe in wealth.” Oh, that’s really limiting. Or “My friends won’t hang around if I take this promotion.” Those are powerful, I think in part because this is like a primitive survival strategy. The idea that you’re going to separate yourself from the herd or from…

Michael: Where there’s safety.

Megan: Where there’s safety. “Safety in numbers” is kind of our most primitive brain. I think this is documented in the research with your brain. Your brain is trying to keep you safe, and separating from the group is a scary thing to do, so there’s a very strong pull to keep you connected with that original group or your family of origin or your small town, those kinds of things. This is one of the hardest ones to break through. It’s why having a peer group of people who are ahead of you or at your level is so critical if that’s not your natural circle of people at home.

Michael: It’s interesting, because early in my career I remember calling my dad at certain points when I would get a promotion, and I was so excited, but then I felt awkward about it at some point, because I realized that even in my late 20s I was making more money than my dad had probably ever made in his life, and then it just became this thing… I didn’t want him to feel badly, and I didn’t want to feel badly about it, so I stopped sharing that with him. I didn’t exactly self-sabotage, but it was very difficult for me to pull away from the gravitational pull of that, realizing that I was succeeding at a level. Now, of course, you’ve gone on to eclipse my career.

Megan: Well, I wasn’t going to say anything.

Michael: And I know it’s awkward for you to talk to me about that, but I’m just giving you permission that you can do that.

Megan: Thank you. This is interesting, because on the one hand, this is a whole conversation going on in our head and it’s about our fear, but this also has an external presentation as well. Oftentimes people in your group, your family or your community, will actually try to shame you back into the fold with these limiting beliefs. It becomes a really weird sort of codependency, and it’s really important to pay attention to this. You may have to create some boundaries in your life that you have not up until this point if you are unwilling to accept this kind of upper limit, because there really are people who will not… This is not only an issue of self-sabotage. Other people can try to sabotage you as well, and a lot of our clients have experienced that.

Michael: I have a real live example that happened just last night.

Megan: Good.

Michael: A family member asked me if I could set aside a date a couple of months from now for a very important event in their life. It was a very specific event, and it was a great event that I want to be at, but I happen to have a speaking engagement on that date. I found myself feeling guilty for having this event, for having a plan for my life and for planning that far in advance. So I was thinking, “How can I get out of this speaking engagement?” They weren’t bad for asking me to do that event, but I just couldn’t do it. I just felt badly because I had this event planned.

Megan: Right. Because you are successful enough that your calendar is full and you have to plan things way in advance (that’s just the nature of your life as a leader in this stage of your career) and that it would be better if you were more available.

Michael: I asked him if he could move the event, and then I immediately apologized, because who am I to ask them to move an event for me? It just made me feel ostentatious.

Megan: Gosh, that’s so interesting. So to overcome this limit we have to realize that everybody is responsible for their own choices. This kind of goes back to good boundaries. This is so easy to forget. I feel like this is one of those things we have to keep reminding ourselves about, because we can slide back into old patterns pretty quickly. You’re accountable for the life you live, not the life others choose. We all have agency to choose the kind of life we want. Just because your family chose one thing doesn’t mean that’s what you have to pick.

Michael: Exactly. I can think of so many examples too. I can think of an example with Mom not wanting to have our housekeeper present when she had the ladies from church over, because then she had to explain why she could afford a housekeeper. She felt like she had the need to do that, but she really didn’t. It kind of goes back… I think we quoted this on a previous episode where we talked about Marianne Williamson and about that amazing quote of it doesn’t really do anybody any favors when you hide your own light. She says it very poetically and very beautifully. We don’t help others by making ourselves less than. We just need to own who we are and not feel like we have to apologize or even explain it.

Megan: To that example you just gave, I can think of a time when our good friend, Stu McLaren, was sitting in your kitchen and was talking about the home manager he and his wife Amy had employed and how that had changed their life. They weren’t very good at cooking, they were struggling with the laundry, and all kinds of stuff. He has talked about this very publicly. They hired their home manager, and it totally changed their lives. I’m like, “What is this? I’ve never even thought about this role.”

Michael: “Is that insane?”

Megan: It just blew my mind. That’s a good example of instead of… It could have been easy for him to play small and to not mention that because he knew we didn’t have anybody like that in our lives. He was willing to talk about it like it was the greatest thing that ever happened, and it totally opened our eyes to a possibility we did not even know existed. As a result, we have benefited from a similar setup down the road. Anyway, I think that’s the positive side of how not playing small can benefit those in your life.

Michael: Stu is a good example of not playing small. He wasn’t bragging about it. He wasn’t apologizing for it. He was just sharing it.

Megan: It was just like, “This is really cool. I have clean tee shirts.”

Michael: It enriched our lives, and we’ve shared that concept with our clients, and their heads have exploded. So, the first limiting belief is a personal objection: “I don’t deserve success.” The second limiting belief is a tribal objection: “My ambition is a betrayal of my roots.” What is the third limiting belief?

Megan: The third limiting belief is relational: “My success highlights the failure of others.” The idea here is that your success makes life harder for your family and friends. Like, “If I achieve too much I’ll outshine my siblings.”

Michael: Okay, I want to stop you right there. You have four younger sisters. Has that thought ever crossed your mind or have you ever struggled with that?

Megan: Totally. Also I’m the oldest, so there are almost 11 years between my youngest sister Marissa and me, which means we’re at totally different life stages. I’m married with four kids; she’s single, for example. We’re not on the same track. Where I was 10-1/2 years ago is now where she is today, for example. I think that can put pressure on her, potentially, where she feels like she has to keep up, or where I feel like I’m too far ahead.

I’m just using that as an easy example, because there’s an age difference there. But certainly that can come into my mind, and that has probably been in the minds of my other sisters, because they’re all very successful in their own ways. Those things don’t always track equally for us. Our careers haven’t all been on the same trajectory.

Michael: Have you found yourself bumping up against that upper limit? Like when you get successful and that thought occurs to you, you think, “Oh, I maybe need to just pump the brakes here a little bit.”

Megan: Yeah. Like, “I probably shouldn’t talk about that success I had” or “I should probably pick a cheaper restaurant,” if we’re all going to go out, or if we’re going to have a girls’ weekend to pick something less expensive.

Michael: A little more modest.

Megan: More modest. That kind of thing.

Michael: Another one is, “My parents weren’t successful; I don’t want them to feel badly,” and I talked about that in the previous point, which is also related to this one, or “If I take this promotion I’ll earn more than my spouse.”

Megan: This is a big one for women, because I think there’s this old idea that men provide for the family and that women need to be careful that they don’t outshine their husbands. Even in women who would consider themselves feminists or new wave feminists, or whatever the language is that is the current language around that, there’s just a cultural idea that women are not supposed to surpass men, even in marriage. The truth is a lot of times that happens, and it can be a huge opportunity to go to a deeper level in your relationship.

I know I struggled with that personally. It was interesting. Joel and I had a lot of conversations about this years ago, where I was really uncomfortable with that myself. He was totally comfortable with it. He had no issues or hang-ups, but I really had to work through it, because that hadn’t always been true in our marriage when our kids were younger and I briefly stayed home and things like that. So I think if we’re not careful we can really sabotage ourselves and get in our own way on this one.

Michael: I don’t know if you remember this, but a couple of years ago Gail and I spoke to a large network marketing organization that was primarily female entrepreneurs, and the host of this event told us… They said, “We want you guys to speak to this, because these marriages often fail. We have a higher than normal percentage of failures in our marriages, because the women outstrip the earning power of their husbands. The husbands can’t deal with it, so it blows up the marriage.”

I just wonder if it was this whole upper limit problem. I think one of two things happens. Either the woman in that situation throttles back her earning power so she doesn’t outshine her husband or she goes ahead without being self-aware and they don’t have a conversation, and then forces beyond their awareness take over and self-sabotage. So you have to have a conversation about this. You have to surface this limiting belief and deal with it in a more powerful way.

Megan: You have to figure out how to relate to one another as partners, not in roles that are traditional and very narrow in that way.

Michael: You are not your job. Another way to state this instead of the limiting belief “My success highlights the failure of others” is “My success could empower the success of others.” There are a lot of reasons why we’re successful, but I think of it… It’s not for myself, but I’m successful for the benefit of other people as well.

When we believe this particular limiting belief it shows up in some interesting ways, like we don’t want to set big goals or we shy away from risk or we avoid doing anything that would distinguish us or get us any kind of notoriety or we take ourselves out of the running for a new job or promotion or we don’t apply to graduate school. We don’t submit the manuscript. We get stuck right before we cross the finish line because we suddenly become aware of what crossing the finish line might mean in terms of other people.

Megan: To overcome this belief we have to realize there are many paths to success. Other people can be successful in different ways. Financially successful is only one way. For example, a stay-at-home mom and a female CEO can both succeed. Finances are just one measure of achievement. Everybody paddles their own canoe. They are responsible for their choices. We don’t have to allow the inaction of others to prevent us from taking action.

Michael: Well said.

Megan: So, today we’ve learned that the main thing standing between you and your greatest goal may be you. The key is to overcome the limiting beliefs that you don’t deserve to succeed or that your ambition is a betrayal of your roots or a hardship to others. As we come to a close, I just want to remind you that you can achieve more than you think, so don’t be afraid to reimagine your life and take the big leap to get there. Dad, any final thoughts?

Michael: This so often comes back to self-awareness, to become aware that this limiting belief is a conversation in your head; it’s not out there. As you are often wont to say, nobody thinks about you more than you think about you. Probably your family is not thinking about this. Probably your friends aren’t thinking about it. It’s something you’re thinking other people think about you, and it’s often not true. So become aware of this limiting belief, this upper limit, and just decide, “You know what? I’m going to confront it, and I’m going to push past it.”

Megan: If you’ve enjoyed today’s episode, you can get the show notes, including a full transcript, online at

Michael: Thanks again for joining us on Lead to Win. Also, please tell your friends and colleagues about it, and subscribe to this podcast on iTunes or wherever you listen. We invite you to join us next week when we’ll tell you about what’s wrong with New Year’s resolutions and how to fix them. Until then, lead to win.