What’s Holding You Back? The Puzzle of the Three-Story Limit


February 28, 2023

Everyone struggles with obstacles and limits, whether self-imposed or external. It’s part of what makes us human. One of the great joys in life, especially in innovation, is figuring out how to creatively overcome those obstacles and limits and have our own “Eureka!” moment

It takes courage to rethink conventional wisdom. But since the beginning of time, progress happens when people are courageous enough to rethink how things have always been done. Let’s explore how to rethink those limits that are holding us back, starting with a look at architecture and what it can teach us about overcoming limits.

Using steel to rethink low-rise buildings

Let’s travel back in time. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, wood and brick were the main construction materials for buildings. Wood was primarily used before the Industrial Revolution, but as cities grew and became more urbanized, wood carried a big risk of fire – this was the case with the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. With the massive innovations of the Industrial Revolution, builders used brick more often. Because it was much sturdier and more fireproof than wood, brick became the preferred choice for new buildings. 

But there was a problem with using wood and brick: they couldn’t support anything taller than about three stories.

Enter renowned architect, Daniel Burnham. He’d worked on the World Exposition in Chicago, which gave it the nickname The White City. He had designed master plans for the cities of Chicago, Washington, DC, and Manila in the Philippines. But there was a difference between those commissions and the one he had before him – height.

The building had several obstacles Daniel needed to overcome: it was on a strange, triangular plot of land, and New York building codes required brick masonry. To top it off, strong winds blowing through the very urban area meant the building required a structure that could withstand enormous pressure.

Then, in 1901 a new building commissioner was appointed in New York, someone who was open to change. The commissioner was intrigued by the new use of steel frames used in construction and allowed them to be used in New York.

That one move paved the way for Daniel to make history.

Using the lighter, yet stronger steel skeleton for the triangular-shaped design, Daniel created a building that could withstand four times its weight in terms of windproofing. So even if the rest of the building blew down, the frame would still stand. That kind of strength also allowed Daniel to build up. Way up. Twenty-two stories up.

With a finished height of 307 feet (about the length of a football field turned on end), the iconic Flatiron Building was completed in 1902. Now, buildings could reach heights never imagined before. And the era of skyscrapers was born. 

Nowhere to go but up (and down)

However, soon another three-story limit came into play. Even though architects like Daniel were willing to design taller and taller buildings, people weren’t willing to hike up all those flights of stairs on foot. This next perceived three-story limit was broken by the elevator. 

But the elevator itself had its own three-story limit. It could only go up and down. And that created design challenges as skyscrapers got taller and taller. Elevators could only go so many stories, and then people would have to get off, go to another elevator, and continue their climb. In the meantime, other people found themselves impatiently waiting for elevators to come to their floor. Plus, from a real estate management perspective, they took up a lot of room. 

That is, until German elevator manufacturer ThyssenKrupp came up with the Multi. The Multi is an elevator that goes sideways, slideways, longways, and backways. The technology is based on that of a bullet train and it uses space more efficiently, there’s less waiting for elevators, and creates a better experience for people in skyscrapers. 

But someday there will be something that comes along and breaks the three-story limit of the Multi. 

What’s your three-story limit?

How does this relate back to you? Maybe, just like Daniel and the Flatiron Building, you’re seeing limits of what’s possible. That there’s a ceiling of how to respond to change in challenging times. Maybe there’s a perceived structural barrier getting in the way of your full potential. A limit that’s holding you back from elevating yourself to your highest possible performance. My question for you is…

What’s YOUR three-story limit? Maybe it’s:

A sales number that feels unachievable

Getting access to a target customer, or the true decision maker of a company

A supply chain issue

Not having enough hours in the day

Feeling that you don’t have the right experience, education, or title to do the things that you want to do

Remember that no matter your current situation, the three-story limit is only there until you decide one day that… it isn’t. And THAT’S when true innovation happens.

Want to read more about how to overcome limits? Check out:

What Keeps People From Hitting Their Goals

Mark Wilson and the Art of the Pivot

Kate Strong: Redefining What’s Possible

Image Credit: Frank Nürnberger from Pixabay

About Carla

Carla Johnson Innovation Creativity Speaker Author

Carla Johnson helps leaders who are often paralyzed by traditional thinking. They suffer from slow growth, an eroding competitive advantage, low employee engagement, and depleted investor confidence. Their teams lack purpose and progress and constantly battle a resistance to change and new ideas.

As the world’s leading innovation architect, Carla’s spent 20 years helping leaders shatter limits and discover undiscovered possibilities. Through years of research, she’s developed a simple, scalable 5-step process that teaches people how to consistently produce inspired ideas that lead to uncommon outcomes.