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Unlearning the impossible


Over the weekend I was at the library picking up Tim Kreider’s essay compilation, We Learn Nothing (side note: listen to his manifesto on laziness). Once I located the book, I took time to study the surrounding shelves. Through Malcolm Gladwell’s Masterclass, I learned he almost always begins his research at the library. He said he finds the way things are organized, by category are theme are useful. He goes on to explain, when you begin to move away from the location where you started, weaker but related ties to the subject come into view. Gladwell says more often than not, some of his most valuable discoveries come by coming across things he hadn’t been looking for rather than had. Put another way, he says Google is not a great way to do his kind of research because it gives you the best and most recent possible answers to your question rather than taking you down unexpected paths.

In my own poking around, I came across Neil Gaiman’s “Make Good Art" speech, which he delivered as the commencement speaker at Philadelphia's University of the Arts in 2012. I had heard this talk referenced before and suddenly here it was. Its inspiring to say the least but one comment in particular spoke to me,

“People who know what they are doing know the rules, and know what is possible and impossible. You do not. And you should not. The rules on what is possible and impossible in the arts were made by people who had not tested the bounds of the possible by going beyond them. And you can. If you don’t know it’s impossible it’s easier to do. And because nobody’s done it before, they haven’t made up rules to stop anyone doing that again, yet."

The thing about the impossible is history has almost always proven it not to be:

  • A urinal was’t art until Marcel Duchamp proved otherwise

  • We couldn’t defy gravity until the Wright Brothers

  • We were permanent residents of this planet until Yuri Gargarin went into space

  • The atom was the smallest piece of matter until it split

  • HIV was a terminal illness until it wasn’t

Gaiman’s quote also takes me to a quote I have often cite from Peter Diamandis’s book Abundance. In the book an early employee of NASA says of its success, "One of the main reasons being that those engineers involved didn't know they were trying to do the impossible, because they were too young to know."

Gaiman’s point to the students is, you’re so new to the world you don’t know the rules. Hurry up and break them before you or others begin to construct walls around the possible and impossible.

Say you’re like me and not fresh out of college. One thing you can do is to adopt the mindset of an immigrant. What do I mean by that? Have you traveled to a foreign country or noticeably different part of your own? While you were there I imagine you at some point found yourself staring at a tradition or way of life and thinking, “Wow! That’s different/weird. I would’ve done that differently.” Immigrants are in part responsible for so many cultural and business innovations because they see things with fresh and questioning eyes. Things look different to them and as a result they may be able to spot an inefficiency or new opportunity. Something similar could be said to the mindset of a young child always asking, “why?"

Once you’ve spotted a potential opportunity comes the hard step of leaning into the fear of failing or being called a fraud or out of touch. More on that later.

Go Forth Boldly

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Mary Oliver


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