An American Mystagogue

What is your Limiting Factor?



“The worst potential competition for any organism can come from its own kind. The species consumes necessities. Growth is limited by that necessity which is present in the least amount. The least favorable condition controls the rate of growth. “

~Laws Of Arrakis, “Heretics Of Dune”

“If you are faced with a mountain, you have several options.

You can climb it and cross to the other side.

You can go around it.

You can dig under it.

You can fly over it.

You can blow it up.

You can ignore it and pretend it’s not there.

You can turn around and go back the way you came.

Or you can stay on the mountain and make it your home.” 
―Vera Nazarian

The first time I read Frank Herbert’s Dune series, I was deeply impacted by a concept that had been previously unknown to me, known as “Liebig’s Law of the Minimum“. It was originally developed by agricultural scientist Carl Sprengal  to describe how the growth of a plant or general ‘yield’ of crops is limited by its least abundant, yet necessary, nutrient. Having an overabundance of one nutrient, even having ten or a hundred times the necessary amount won’t make up for the lack of even a little of another essential nutrient, and will thus limit the growth of the crops. The least abundant essential nutrient/ingredient is called the “Limiting Factor”.

What I found interesting about the limiting factor is that it seems to apply to any process that requires a specific amount of various ingredients to get an end result, sort of like a recipe. Plants need X amount of certain kinds of nutrients in balance, or they die or do not flourish. A loaf of bread can be easily ruined or made unpalatable by the over-addition of different ingredients, and certainly having ten pounds of flour doesn’t help much when you lack water or milk, just as having near infinite water wouldn’t help you much to bake that loaf if you had no flour.

But more importantly, I noticed that this seemed to apply to any ‘growth based system’, including humans. While this could be seen as presumptuous on my part, I have to say that I even notice them blatantly in myself. Does one really benefit from ‘even more’ of something they already have in abundance? Does a person who reads thousands of books become better equipped for life by reading another book, or by doing something they don’t touch upon at all? Likewise, does a person who spends all of their time socializing benefit from yet another evening of socialization, something they are already abundant in, other than the myriad of things they could do otherwise? Does a person who lives spontaneously every day get much benefit from another day of spontaneous living, instead of attempting mindful, planned and volitional activities? Does a person who exercises everyday get more benefit from exercising another day or doing something new?

Don’t get me wrong I think all of the mentioned subjects are, if not necessary, then extremely useful towards ‘self growth’. Reading, socializing, spontaneity, planning, exercise and novelty, these among many other subjects are part of the ‘ingredient’ list (which is variable person to person, but not as much as you might think) of personal ‘growth’. What I am questioning is how much of a certain activity is actually holding someone back on their goals of self-change. Granted, every activity is not suited for every person. Some people have a mono-goal of a certain kind of activity, and they might put all of their energy into it, but this does not detract from the overall idea. If you are in isolation for a month seeing a person, any person, even in passing or during something as mundane as purchasing groceries,  might very well help you with your writing. If you are weight lifting, reading inspirational messages or listening to music could help your endeavors.

Its easy to do what is easy, and in the human sphere of things, what we have in ‘abundance’ is often easier to work on. A writer keeps writing, a builder keeps building, a socialite keeps socializing, but how often are we accidentally undermining our ability for growth by limiting other essential ingredients? Is it presumptuous to say that nearly everyone could benefit from both intellectual discourse and reading, physical activity and socializing, and a near inexhaustible list of things? That these things taken to their extreme might yield a person specializing in a certain few skills but ultimately limiting even those skills they are passionate about by the sheer reality of being human, being a complex system of growth? Possibly. But I think humans are not so exempt from reality as we think, and that this is a pattern you’ll find in any ‘growth system’.

Perhaps one could observe oneself. What are you abundant in? What is your limiting factor?

~ Seth Moris

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.” ~ Robert A. Heinlein


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