The Problem with ‘Possibility’

The day was May 6th, 1954. Roger Bannister broke the world record in running. For the first time ever, someone had managed to run a mile in under four minutes. Forty six days later John Landy bet Bannister’s record. And within the year over twenty people proved they could do a sub four second mile. And today, healthy teenagers are able to run a four minute mile.

Georgia born Paul Anderson, went on to lift 402.5 pounds defeating the then world record of 330.5 pounds. He went on to create many more firsts and to be recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records for his lifting of 6270 pounds. Paul Anderson’s record would only last a few years.

Jennifer Bricker wanted to be a world class gymnast. And went on to become one. Not a big deal in and off itself. Except that Jennifer was born without legs. Sheer perseverance and practice made her win accolades and championships that put her in a very special place among physically challenged athletes.

The list goes on. From athletes to technologists to freedom fighters to activists the list of people who went on to defy the odds and do the impossible goes on and on.

Here is why this is important and worth studying. Each of these achievers had an insurmountable obstacle to overcome. And they accomplished it in spite of the odds.

Why can’t many more people break world records or go on to do the impossible? Or closer home, what is stopping me from doing the impossible?

The answer could lie in the fact that almost always we start with what is possible. We start from a position of what we know. What we are familiar with. What keeps us in a comfortable place. Familiarity is the common thread. Naturally so. Unless we know something, we cannot think in terms of, for or against something.

The downside however is that we will only get to achieve within the realm of that possibility. We end up exercising skills and capabilities that we already possess. And that limits our vision and thinking to what we are already capable of. When we start with the place of familiarity, we cannot end up in a place that is unfamiliar or uncomfortable. Achieve we will. But the achievement will be within the confined boundaries of what we know is a possibility.

There is nothing wrong with this approach. And most of the greatness achieved by the who’s who of the world fall within this box of possibility. Awe inspiring feats and accomplishments have all started with things that were once familiar or in scope of the person who achieved that feat.

However, earth shattering, death defying, and incredible acts of accomplishments are those that all start outside the realm of current skills and capabilities. Building a billion dollar business or landing on the moon or running the four minute mile or lifting 402.5 pounds were all conceived outside the capabilities of the individual who accomplished that.

Starting with the impossible means to start with the thinking that ‘anything is possible’. The difference in the thought process should be clear and unambiguous. Takes a paradigm shift in how one looks at goals and achievements.

Aspiring to do the impossible calls for starting from a place where current capabilities and skills not cloud judgement and goal setting. Starting with an end state without being limited by the possibilities of what we know today.

Once the end state vision is defined, the rest of the effort is focused around developing and acquiring skills and capabilities and persevering towards achieving that goal. In the process of doing that, current skills will certainly come in handy. It is likely that you will have to build upon the capabilities you have already. However, those will prove to be a staring point and no longer a limiting factor towards the grand vision of what you want to achieve.

A more recent example is the shooting of the movie Avatar and its sequels that are in various stages of scripting or production. Much of the technology required for the movie was either not present or fully developed when the movie was shot. Even now, as Avatar 2 is being shot, a lot of new technology continues to be developed and created to make the movie possible. If James Cameron had thought in terms of currently available technology, we would not have seen the brilliance of Avatar nor would we be waiting in anticipation of its sequels.

In essence, starting with the impossible calls for these three qualities:

Come up with the end state vision. Think beyond skills, capabilities and knowledge that you have today or already. Big and audacious goals cannot be a factor of what we know today.

  1. Chart the course. Once the end state vision is defined, chart the course of action that will take you from where you are to what you want to achieve. This will involve using some or all of your current skills. And that is normal and how it should be.
  2. Stay the course. Knowing what to do and how to do are certainly the big chunks of achieving the end state vision. However, the real secret lies in the consistency of action. Going after the vision every single day. Making incremental progress every waking day.
  3. Ritualizing the act to an extent you will move the vision along untiringly irrespective of the roadblocks and hindrances.

Easier said than done. Not for the faint of heart. Physical limitations cannot hold you back. Paul Anderson suffered from chronic nephritis, a kidney disorder, while he continued to challenge existing beliefs around the amount of weight that could be lifted. Jennifer Bricker went on the achieve state championships and participate in junior Olympics while still not having legs to engage in the very sport that is predicated on having a strong pair of legs.

In the case of Roger Bannister and Paul Anderson, countless folks went on to break the record shortly after the record was broken by these individuals. It was like the world was waiting for a precedence to be set. We needed to be told it is possible before we could shoot to achieve the feat. Someone had to show the way and give us the permission to go and break the record and surpass it. Jennifer Bricker’s example opened the world for all the physically challenged people and athletes and gave them the confidence and courage to go for the impossible.

With a cloud of witnesses that have surpassed the possible and achieved the impossible, there is really no excuse to think in terms of possibilities. The real way to think is that anything is possible. And go after it with all you can give.