We say “when pigs fly” whenever we’re describing something impossible. It’s a way of saying something will never happen, to scoff at over ambition, “yeah right, when pigs fly.”
Pigs may not have wings but these days it’s not out of the realm of possibilities for them to fly. All you have to do is put one on an airplane, or in a hot air balloon.
A thousand years ago the only way to understand the idea of someone or something flying was to think of it within the contexts of magic or godliness.
People didn’t fly, it just wasn’t something that was capable of happening. Whenever people imagined flying back then they did so from the perspective of magic or otherworldliness. Gods flew, birds too, but people or pigs? Never going to happen, impossible.
Today more than 2.5 million people fly every day within the United States alone. 45,000 ft in the air, 250 meters a second, millions and millions of miles traveled a day. But if you were to travel back in time and repeat those numbers to someone they’d have a hard time comprehending what you were saying. To those who lived a thousand years ago flying was impossible, not only for pigs but for people too.
Yet here we are: millions of people doing the impossible every day.
It turns out impossible isn’t as precise as its description implies: “something unable to occur or exist.” Something that’s impossible from one perspective or frame of understanding is normal in another. As humans we may be incapable of flying without the gravity-defying support of an airplane, but we are flying nonetheless every time we travel in one. Flying therefore is no longer impossible. Pigs can fly every day now.
”It always seems impossible until it’s done.” — Nelson Mandela
In order to provoke creative thinking we often need to change the lens we use when looking at a problem or statement. What’s impossible here and now, with our current understanding or perspective, may be entirely possible if all we do is change the way we’re looking at it: if we flip it around, change the context, introduce a new technology or facet, remove a piece, or put the thing into something else—like a pig into an airplane.
"The ability to see an idea, or a thing, from many different perspectives is among the greatest assets a thinking person can have." — Scott Berkun in his book The Dance of the Possible
Another way to invoke that unique lens or perspective is to talk to someone else, or read a book. What’s impossible or far-fetched to you may be an everyday occurrence for someone else. The person who lived a thousand years ago spent every day talking about how pigs or people could never fly, but today we know that’s not only possible, but a regular thing.
What else might we think is limited, only to find it’s not when we change the contexts? Who might know? You won’t get answers just thinking about these things: you have to imagine alternatives, go out and try to create things, and talk to those who may have a different perspective.