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On the Impossible

January 9, 2015

Well the champagne was properly toasted, the fireworks much admired. The celebrations came and went, and now here we are, intrepidly set to face a new year with a new list of resolutions. ‘The world's mine oyster, which I with sword will open.’



It is believed that the ancient Babylonians were the first to make New Year’s resolutions. In an effort to start the year off on the right foot, they promised to pay off debts and return borrowed farming equipment. The Romans made their promises to the God Janus, and Judaism and Christianity later spread the practice all over the world.


Last week, between 45 and 62% of Americans made a resolution. In the week it took to write and publish this post, a quarter had already given up. And by the end of 2015, 92% will have dismissed their goals as ‘impossible,’ just in time to start over.


The Oxford dictionary defines the impossible as something ‘not able to occur, exist, or be done.’ Technically, for anything to qualify as such, it must defy one or all of the laws of logic, physics, or contingency, but we are far more liberal in our everyday use of the term. Here are, for a laugh, a few famous verdicts of impossibility pronounced over the past two centuries:


 Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.

- Lord Kelvin, British mathematician and physicist, president of the British Royal Society, 1895.


A rocket will never be able to leave the Earth’s atmosphere.

– New York Times, 1936.


There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.

- Ken Olson, founder, chairman & president of Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC), 1977.


We will never make a 32 bit operating system.

- Bill Gates


The truth is that there are as many assertions of impossibility as there are inspirational stories that defy them:


On the one hand, general culture, the media, and the field of education have pushed our ‘can do’ attitude to the extreme. We have emasculated the impossible with how-to books and ten-step guides, autobiographies and happily ending fairy tales, marketing slogans and corny gimmicks on Hallmark cards. We have plastered our walls with posters of idols, heroes, and politicians urging us on with a confident ‘Impossible is nothing! Yes we can!’


On the other hand, we make yearly resolutions with the full expectation of not keeping them. We start diets on Monday mornings and end them by noon. We sign our children up for ballet classes then pull them out when they begin to interfere with Algebra homework. We scribble book titles and sketch machine diagrams on restaurant napkins then toss them in trash bins on our way out.


We dismiss our wildest dreams with nearly the same spontaneity with which we proudly claim that, in this day and age, anything is possible. And in the late night lulls of our reasonable lives, we console ourselves by flipping through history books for stories of other people’s impossible feats.


The dichotomy of our thoughts does not surprise or trouble us, for there is a fundamental difference between our own stories and those of our role models: in theirs we already know the ending.


The story of legendary British mathematician and cryptanalyst Alan Turing was recently released in a movie entitled ‘The Imitation Game.’ During World War II, Turing and a team of mathematical logicians in Bletchley Park succeeded in cracking ‘Enigma,’ Nazi Germany’s wartime communication coding machine. By breaking the ‘unbreakable’ code in the movie’s one hundred and fourteen minute running time, it is believed that Turing shortened the war in Europe by as many as two to four years and saved millions of lives. Winston Churchill called his contribution the ‘single biggest’ to Allied victory.



History’s rose-colored shades have a sneaky habit of smoothing out the grey. For two years, no one, not even Turing, knew whether his project would work. He was doubted, mocked, and humiliated, and no amount of soundtrack-assisted close-up shots could possibly convey the anguish and uncertainty he must have faced. How could we grasp the scope of this impossibility? We already knew how the movie would end.


Steve Jobs once said: ‘You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.’ But there is no glory in 20-20 hindsight. Only laziness.


Looking forward when the ending is unclear takes courage, sometimes folly, but mostly downright obstinacy.


I think of the men who dug and plowed and built the Canadian Pacific Railway: the first transcontinental track to connect the newly created Dominion of Canada from sea to sea, and that to this day crosses some of the most dangerous stretches of terrain in the world. They bore no illusions of grandeur with regard to the work they were doing, nor did they stop to consider the possibility of failure. I believe they were more concerned surviving disease, the cold, and the avalanches of snow and rock. It took 30,000 workers four and a half years, and many of them died along the way. Obstinacy in the very face of Nature, and guess who won.


There is an alternate definition to the word impossible in the Oxford dictionary, one I much prefer. It is: ‘very difficult to deal with.’ Impossible is not nothing; we are wrong to trivialize it. But impossible is not final either; we are wrong to fear it. Impossible is not that which contradicts logic, physics, or contingency; those we can change. With enough practice, the impossible is only what you believe, or don’t believe, it to be.



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