The Upper Limits Problem

April 1, 2024

As our call kicked off, my client proudly made the following proclamation:

“After giving it some thought, I think that I’m really happy at this size, and I’ve decided that I really just want a lifestyle business.”

​His business was on track to more than double this year. He’d gone from just barely cracking $1M in revenue for the 3rd year in a row to booking $700k of revenue in the first quarter alone.

Since we began working together nine months ago, this founder’s rapid progress has been nothing short of astounding.

When he came to me, he had just lost his biggest client, responsible for 40% of his monthly recurring revenue. He was in chaos, worried about having to lay off valued team members and nervous about how he would ever dig himself out of this hole and get back to profitability.

​First, I knew that he wouldn’t be able to make good decisions from this place, so my job was to help him anchor into safety. We took a look at the facts. He had plenty of cash reserves, especially given that his personal expenses were quite manageable. When we dug in, we found that even if nothing changed (meaning no new clients and no layoffs), he could operate at a loss for the rest of the year before getting below his comfort level of cash reserves. He could operate for a whopping 18 months before he would run out of money.

​This analysis had the desired effect. The panic subsided, and he began thinking clearly again. He admitted that it was extremely unlikely that he wouldn’t be able to sell a single client before the end of the year and that, when he really thought about it, the big client that left was actually very demanding, not very profitable, and not very pleasant to work with. They leaned aggressively on his team to complete out-of-scope projects and were constantly dropping “urgent” last-minute requests.

​As we dug in further, we found that he had a senior “gatekeeper” employee whose negativity constantly made him feel that things were actually worse than they were. They were always painting the worst-case scenario, and because they were a trusted advisor, the founder believed that he was always on the brink of disaster and couldn’t afford to invest in new initiatives or give the team raises to reward their hard work.

​When I gently pointed out how these negative projections were distorting reality, the founder started to see how this employee’s doomsday rhetoric was permeating their entire culture. He decided to make a change. He let the senior team member go and decided to take ownership of the things that he had been outsourcing – especially his financial picture.

​The newly optimistic founder called a team meeting and laid out a new, bold vision for the company. They detailed how they were going to replace the lost revenue with clients who were better aligned with the company values, and that would treat their employees with the respect they deserved. He laid out new guidelines for client onboarding and communication expectations, complete with boundaries on last-minute requests.

The team simultaneously gave a sigh of relief while a wave of excitement filled the room. They were off to the races.

​The founder replaced the revenue within weeks, and several months later, the moment of panic was all but a distant memory. They closed the year with both the highest revenue and profitability the company had ever seen. The owner paid himself significantly more than ever before.

​And now, as Q1 was drawing to a close, they were on track to reach $2.8M in revenue by the end of the year.

​This brings us to the present and the declaration that he was happy where he was. He really didn’t want to continue growing the business, he argued, because he really valued time with his kids and didn’t want to jeopardize the newfound work-life balance.

And this, my friends, is a perfect example of the Upper Limits Problem.

​Popularized by Gay Hendricks in his book “The Big Leap,” the Upper Limits Problem encapsulates the invisible psychological ceiling we unknowingly set for ourselves, a barrier constructed from deep-seated fears and false beliefs that confines us to a familiar zone of comfort and mediocrity. It is the silent saboteur of our greatest ambitions, arresting our ascent at the precipice of breakthrough success, love, and happiness as we subconsciously retreat to the safety of known limits rather than face the vulnerability and uncertainty of transcending our self-imposed boundaries.

​You see, over the past year, this brave founder had broken through significant personal barriers and pushed himself to new, previously unimaginable levels of success. He was finally settling into stability, happiness, and alignment.

​Confoundingly, this is exactly when the Upper Limits Problem rears its head. This problem arises when individuals, much like this business owner, encounter their own psychological ceiling of what they believe they deserve in terms of success. In his case, the fear that further growth could encroach upon his personal time or force him to compromise his values was a subtle form of self-sabotage.

​The fact is, we will never continue to grow if we believe that we must sacrifice in order to do so. This business owner was finally enjoying the fruits of their success and was terrified that further growth would sabotage the balance that they had so painstakingly built.

​The Four Hidden Barriers

​Gay Hendricks illuminates four hidden barriers, all stemming from ingrained beliefs and fears, that fortify this ceiling:

Feeling Fundamentally Flawed: This barrier can lead the business owner to think they aren’t worthy of their success, a feeling that is as unjust as it is unfounded.

Disloyalty and Abandonment: The fear that their success may alienate them from their roots or their past, as if success were a betrayal of their origin.

Believing Success Brings a Bigger Burden: The apprehension that growth is synonymous with being overwhelmed, or worse, that their success could inadvertently harm others.

The Crime of Outshining: The trepidation that by surpassing others, they might invite resentment or make others look bad, as if their light dims others by shining too brightly. This phenomenon is often known as the fear of success.

​Rather than viewing time as a finite resource to be stretched thin, Hendricks proposes a radical shift towards expanding time through engagement and focus. By immersing fully in our Zone of Genius, we create a quality of presence that makes time a friend, not a foe. This means the business owner can find more efficient, joyful ways of working within their genius, not by adding more hours to their day, but by making each hour more effective and aligned with their true passions.

To navigate and overcome the Upper Limits Problem, consider these practical steps:

Identify and dismantle upper limit behaviors: Become vigilant in recognizing when you’re approaching your self-imposed ceiling and choose actions that foster growth instead of retreating.

Focus on your Zone of Genius: Ruthlessly delegate or outsource tasks that fall outside your Zone of Genius to individuals who are better suited for them, thus freeing you to excel where you’re naturally gifted.

Embrace continuous learning and self-discovery: Our business will never grow beyond our personal limitations. As your business evolves, so must the owner, both personally and professionally.

​In our journey with this venerable business owner, it’s clear that the Upper Limits Problem is not a sign of failure but a milestone of growth, signaling the need for a shift in perspective. We must continually identify and push through our limiting beliefs, becoming proactive rather than reactive.

​We can break through these ceilings by understanding and addressing the hidden barriers, embracing our Zone of Genius, expanding our concept of time, and building systems that protect it.

​To help identify where we may be limiting our growth is this simple but powerful question:

What are you afraid you’ll have to sacrifice to reach your dreams?

​To continuously smashing our upper limits,


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