To Define is to Limit

To Define is to Limit

To define is to limit – a quote from Oscar Wilde, first mentioned in his novel “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” It enjoins the concept of freedom, something which Wilde repeatedly refers to in his works. While a relatively short quote, it can mean a lot to many of us who have placed unnecessary bounds on our own ambitions and abilities.

Life is much too important a thing ever to talk seriously about it. Oscar Wilde (Vera; or, The Nihilists)

Who was Oscar Wilde?

Oscar Wilde was born in Dublin to Anglo-Irish parents. He was initially homeschooled until he was nine years old, at which point he attended Portora Royal School in Enniskillen until 1871. He then became known in school as a storyteller and a speedreading prodigy, both of which were the claims he himself made later in life.
In college, Wilde joined Freemasonry, a society that espouses the importance of freedom and individualism.
Wilde placed high importance to aesthetics, believing that beauty alone is the object of life. This belief would be displayed throughout his various works, where he repeatedly refers to the beauty and abstractness of art.

What is the meaning of the quote?

In The Picture of Dorian Gray, the full quote is taken from a conversation between two characters. When Lord Henry is asked, “What are you?” He responds with, “To define is to limit.” In this answer, Henry abruptly dodges the question, arguing that defining what he is would entail limiting his very essence.
The quote decries the concept of an individual`s definition, with Wilde believing that defining something limits one’s understanding of the concept by the bounds of that definition. It implies that a concept is much more than what any definition claims it to be and that things are better understood without placing definite bounds on them.

Yet another implication is that Wilde dislikes the concept of limitations in general. As an adherent to the concept of freedom, Wilde prefers the abstract to the concrete, as shown in his many quotes about art, one of which is found in another one of his works: The Intentions.

What Art really reveals to us is Nature’s lack of design, her curious crudities, her extraordinary monotony, her absolutely unfinished condition. Oscar Wilde (Intentions)

Limiting Beliefs

This idea of limitation through definition that Wilde has had still plays an important role nowadays. Mainly that many of us have defined a rigid belief system about ourselves that we shall refer to as a “Limiting Belief”.
Limiting belief is an idea or a conviction which we hold true about ourselves that restricts our actions so much that we dare not attempt to reach a higher goal.  Having limiting beliefs is dangerous because it keeps a person believing that their capabilities can reach only up to a certain extent, even though their actual abilities may be much greater than what they believe them to be. This danger is further highlighted by the fact that limiting beliefs are usually ingrained at an early stage: from the moment a goal is set or even from the moment a person begins to form an idea about themselves.

Stated differently, a limiting belief can stop a person from growing, improving, or moving forward by having them falsely believe that they have reached their “limits.”

Limiting beliefs can manifest in a multitude of ways, and they are not always confined to limitations of one’s potential.

  • Projection
  • A person who believes that they are untrustworthy has a belief that limits themselves from seeking help from other individuals as he or she may believe that other people should also not be trusted.

  • Group Conformity
  • Conformity to a group or a specific set of ideas can also be a form of limiting beliefs. In this case, people adhere only to ideas that they resonate with while avoiding — whether intentionally or otherwise — any ideas they disagree with. This prevents them from having a fully formed and educated opinion on things. In the long run, they will realize that they have been living in a cage of their own making for most of their lives, failing to realize the growth they could have had if they broke free from their conformity.
    Read more on Conformity here.

  • Perfectionism
  • A perfectionist has a limiting belief that any work they produce that falls short of what they define as “perfect” is not worth sharing or publishing. This can lead to negative consequences where a person can find themselves metaphorically stuck in the same place for long periods of time.

Understand, the lesson to take from this is not that a human being is inherently limitless, that would be a harmful idea to have. Instead it is the notion that many of us have not tapped into our full potential due to the fact that we underestimate our own competence. Hence, to overcome these rigid beliefs, one must carefully examine their long-held deep-seated preconceptions about their abilities. These limiting preconceptions usually stem from childhood and can be difficult to overcome once they are firmly rooted in a person’s belief system.

Defining Fears

We have seen the destructive nature of defining something like our personal beliefs may be. However, in many instances we can use this to our advantage. A practical example where this occurs is in public debates. Public speaking or public debates often place limitations on concepts to be discussed. Common formats such as the British Parliamentary format requires the first speaker to define the concept being debated on. This kind of defining and limiting has its benefits that are primarily rooted in practicality: it would be difficult to understand a concept for the first time without placing limitations and parameters to allow for a more simple form of initial understanding.

In the same vein, this advantage can be applied to defining one’s fears. If to define is to limit, then defining one’s fear can result in limiting it. Psychological counseling sessions often involves clinicians asking their patients to discuss and define their fears out loud to understand these fears on a deeper level better.

By talking about their fears, patients unconsciously move these from the abstract to the concrete. This results in a sudden realization that the long-held fear was primarily driven by its unknown nature. By taking away the unknown aspect of one’s fear and understanding it better, people realize that their fears become more manageable, if not completely curable.

Defining worst case scenario

One way of conquering fear is to define the worst case scenario, that is to imagine what would happen if everything that you thought would go wrong actually did. Many people try to avoid even thinking this way because it causes stress and anxiety so they actually attempt to avoid taking any action altogether which could lead into this situation in the first place.

However, there is no progress without action, and there is no good without the bad, yet if we follow this way of thinking we can predict the bad and build prevention steps around it. It can be best demonstrated with the following example.

Let`s say you want to open an online shop to sell rear expensive diamonds, you happily go and open a shop on any major e-commerce platform such as Shopify, Etsy or any other. The problem you immediately face is: “what if some customers claim the diamonds as fake.” This could be perhaps that they don`t know any better or it could be intentional. Even worse, now those customers never returned the item upon getting their refund. You find yourself loosing money and diamonds very fast, you are forced to close your online shop with major financial loses.

So, is there a way to prevent this disaster? Of course there is, for one you may try using payment processors who will not return the money to the clients until you have confirmed that you have received your item back, you could also avoid major e-commerce platforms since they tend to side with the customer rather than the buyer, you can ask a lawyer to draft a return policy for your shop. You can also look at other shops who find themselves in the same position, reach out to them and ask how they deal with it. Perhaps you even start out your shop with selling lower cost items. While there still a slight risk involved, we have now through this exercise lowered it substantially with preventative measures and instead of abandoning the idea altogether or jumping into it without caution (which is just as foolish), we now have a good strategy to use for moving forward with our online business.

Defining Goals

Another advantage that can be had with definitions is with goals. People often set significant, long-term goals for themselves. This is not a negative or harmful act in and of itself, but it quickly turns into a disadvantage once people begin to feel overwhelmed with their goals.

One can reduce or remove this feeling of being overwhelmed by defining a concrete goal of what needs to be achieved along with a deadline of when it needs to be done. Once this is done you can further breaking it down into smaller, more manageable mini goals on a monthly or weekly basis.