February 2024

Life Sentences

‘A man’s got to know his limitations’

By Andy Griffiths
The author imagines a better world, where everyone abides by the universal truth uttered by Dirty Harry in ‘Magnum Force’

We hear a lot about the importance of believing in yourself, dreaming big and how, if you put your mind to it, anything is possible. Well, that’s all fine and good, but I prefer to live by Dirty Harry’s maxim, delivered moments after he’s dispatched the corrupt lieutenant Briggs (who clearly has only a very sketchy idea of his limitations) with a secretly planted car bomb at the end of Magnum Force (1973).

Barely a day goes by where I don’t find an opportunity to apply this sentence to myself or others. So much needless suffering could be avoided – and the world would correspondingly be so much happier – if everyone acknowledged their limitations and just stuck to their knitting. (Unless they are shit at knitting, of course, in which case they should stick to topiary, trainspotting or whatever comes naturally.)

Just imagine. No more actors trying to be musicians or musicians trying to be actors. No more celebrities trying to be children’s authors and no more children’s authors trying to be, well, anything else really.

For instance, I once entertained the idea that I might have hitherto unrealised drawing talent. I enrolled in a Learn To Draw for Beginners class, the flyer for which assured me that no experience was necessary. I arrived at the class with my box of coloured chalks to discover that we were expected to draw a vase of flowers. I tried to explain to the instructor that I was merely a beginner, but he told me to just draw what I saw. And so I did. At the end of an hour we all had to turn our easels around and show the class what we’d done. I was horrified to see that the others had, more or less, drawn a recognisable vase of flowers.

The instructor walked around the class pointing out the features of each drawing, finding something positive to say about each one.

And then he got to mine. “Well, Andy,” he said, drawing a deep breath. “You’ve had an experience, haven’t you?” He may as well have said, “A man’s got to know his limitations,” and expelled me from the class on the spot. But he didn’t need to; my limitations were there on the easel for all to see. I took my pastels and never went back.

And I enjoy getting out and digging in the garden as much as anyone, but recently I’ve had to reluctantly accept my limitations in this area as well. In three separate incidents in the past two years alone, I’ve managed to break two water pipes and puncture a gas main. These accidents inevitably occur late on a Sunday afternoon when getting an emergency callout is both difficult and expensive.

A more honest appraisal of my lack of aptitude in this area would have saved me a lot of money, not to mention ridicule. My daughters seem to think that seeing me standing in the garden, spade in hand, next to a column of spouting water or engulfed in a cloud of poisonous gas is a cause for great amusement, rather than an opportunity to practise empathy or, at the very least, offer practical assistance. (Despite my excellent parenting, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by how my daughters have turned out. I guess a man’s not only got to accept his own limitations but those of his children as well.)

If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll see there’s really no activity or area of life in which Dirty Harry’s edict doesn’t hold true. To name just a few: public speaking, gambling, hosting dinner parties, weightlifting, alcohol consumption, dancing, sex (see alcohol consumption) and, yes, writing.

Despite having defied the odds to make a career as an author, I’m well aware of my limitations as a writer, thanks to my wife and long-suffering editor, Jill. She’ll happily tell you that I’m not much good at description, terrible at complicated action and hopeless at rhyming, and that my characterisation leaves a lot to be desired. So, no, I won’t be writing that lyrical, beautifully nuanced, heartbreaking, prose-poem thriller for adults any time soon. Or ever. And I’m fine with that.

The point is that knowing your limitations – what you’re not good at – can help you to know what you are good at. You can live – and work – very effectively within your limitations, and if you get lucky every now and again, well, who knows – you may even exceed them. At the very least it may reduce your chances of getting exploded by Dirty Harry.

Andy Griffiths

Andy Griffiths is one of Australia’s most popular children’s authors.

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