impossible

Impossible as a perspective we keep

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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.



Ways to discover the impossibly possible

In 82 AD the Roman satirist Juvenal wrote: “rara avis in terris nigroque simillima cygno.” Meaning: a rare bird in the lands, and very like a black swan.

Back then, in the middle ages of Europe, a black swan was impossible to fathom. Juvenal wrote what everyone who lived long ago believed: that all swans were white. A swan of any other color was nonexistent, impossible to fathom.

Then, in 1697, Willem de Vlamingh was exploring parts of Australia when he happened upon that very impossible artifact: a black swan, in the flesh. It took less than 30 years for a pair of black swans to be captured, proving their existence for the world to see.

Just like that, the world shifted. What was once thought of as truth and fact had dissolved and the impossible was made possible.

Today the world consists almost entirely of impossibilities turned possible. It was once impossible to imagine that billions of people could carry a device in their pocket with nearly any recording in history on it (including audio, video, books, and pictures). It used to be impossible for a single person to start a publishing company and reach millions of people overnight. All concepts that Seth Godin explains in this brief video interview.

What we believe to be impossible today is commonly made possible within a matter of time. Sometimes days, weeks, or years, sometimes decades, sometimes long after our lives have passed. Rarely does the impossible stay that way for long (for many things, anyway).

This is where creativity comes into play. Creativity thrives in the impossible. What you believed yesterday but can change your mind about today is fuel for creative thought. New ideas often lie in the unimaginable: making a living with your art, finding a more efficient way to work, writing a novel and selling a million copies on your own, creating a movie on a budget less than $10,000 that captures the eyes of the world.

To be creative, all you have to do is look to the impossible and dream of how to make it possible.

How exactly do you stare into what’s currently impossible and find the future possibilities?

Travel

“Nothing breaks down preconceptions and opens up horizons more than travel.” – Robert Frost, engineer at NASA.

Imagine what the world would believe widely if people didn’t travel. Like the discovery of the Black Swan, if Willem de Vlamingh hadn’t traveled it would have been hard for those living in Europe to believe that swans could be any color other than white.

In your own life there are undoubtedly things you believe to be fact that in other parts of the world simply aren’t true. The only way to really discover those things is to travel.

Read, often and far

Even if you do travel, there are parts of the world that can only be brought to you through reading.

But you can’t simply read the books that spark your interest. You have to read books that are far from your own interests if you’re going to discover which of your impossible beliefs others have made possible.

Have conversations

The real trick to finding the impossibly possible through conversations is to listen to other people.

When people communicate they’re doing more than moving their mouth and exhausting breath from their lungs, they’re sharing ideasknowledge, and their own beliefs. All great sources of discovering ways to change your own thinking.

Challenge your beliefs

Taking the time to regularly challenge your beliefs allows you to seriously think on them.

If you believe things that are impossible are so because of what you’ve been taught (without exploring them on your own), how can you know for sure that it’s true?

To be creative is to explore what you believe is impossible today. What if it wasn’t tomorrow?