It always seems impossible until it’s done.
This quote may or may not be accurately attributed to Nelson Mandela. But regardless of who said it first, the sentiment is true all the same.
For a species so quick to pat itself on the back for its unbounded imagination, we sure have been obstinate about it every step of the way.
History is rife with examples.
You don’t even need to think very hard about it:
The printing press, the combustion engine, the television, antibiotics, personal computing, human cloning, nuclear fission, organ transplants, artificial intelligence, quantum teleportation, space travel …
… along with other, less-blockbuster examples.
And the pattern is generally the same. We (collectively) believe something is impossible. Then someone comes along and dreams a little bigger and challenges the zeitgeist. Society (often, and especially in the past) ostracizes, marginalizes, demonizes, or penalizes that person for espousing dangerous ideas and spreading misinformation. Then the thing that was impossible is finally achieved. We eventually (after an appropriate period of foot-stomping and huffing) all accept it. Speeches about reaching for the stars and pushing the boundaries of our imagination are written.
Humanity rejoices in celebration of its ingenuity.
The old wheel turns, and the same spoke comes up. It’s all been done before, and will be again.
It was Arthur Conan Doyle who wrote that, and the more you think about it, the harder it becomes to disagree.
Why has humanity been so historically resistant to good (but new) ideas?
Why has “that’s impossible” remained our default, instinctive mantra?
Why is it so hard to consider the outlandish?
Samuel Arbesman provides excellent insight into these questions in this article on Harvard Business Review.
Answer: because we are intellectually stubborn. We resist revolutionary ideas — even those in our best interest — when our own worldview is threatened or brought under direct examination and scrutiny in the process.
Even simpler put: we are afraid of change.
How delightfully human.
Turning our attention away from the past and to the future, the question of when and where the ‘next big thing’ is going to come from is also the subject of debate and study.
Stanford economists say that big ideas are harder and harder to find today as the costs of innovative endeavours have increased dramatically. They contend that big ideas no longer come from the domain of an individual’s vision or creativity, but rather through massive, costly, collaborative undertakings.
Nicholas Bloom, a senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, gives it to us straight:
The thought now of somebody inventing something as revolutionary as the locomotive on their own is inconceivable.
And there’s the rub.
Nothing against the fine men and women of Standford, but by using a word as pregnant as inconceivable, isn’t Dr. Bloom guilty of the exact same fallacy that we began with.
It always seems impossible until it’s done.
Isn’t that how we started?
Shouldn’t it, at the very least, be the responsibility of our leading scientists, thinkers, scholars, academics, and economists to push the boundaries of what is possible? Of what can be conceived? Shouldn’t it literally be part of their jobs to conceive the inconceivable?
I mean, if not them, then who??
I don’t know what the next idea as revolutionary as the locomotive is going to be, but the thought of somebody coming up with one is entirely within the realm of possibility. Saying otherwise is myopic, obstinate, and dangerous.
We have a lot of problems.
We need solutions. NEW ones. Innovative ones. Revolutionary ones.
And we needed them yesterday, and by yesterday I mean ten years ago.
The impending destabilization of our environmental systems alone should be enough for a scientist to never put words like ‘inconceivable’ into a conversation about future innovation.
If you Google the statistics for world poverty, most websites will have the estimate hovering somewhere around 700 million people. However, this number is wildly misleading.
The Townsend Centre for International Poverty Research, founded by Peter Townsend, invented the relative deprivation theory of poverty which approaches the definition and measurement of poverty from an international scientific basis.
This is a far more accurate assessment and analysis of world poverty figures as the study hinges on the understanding that poverty is less about shortage of income, and more about the inability of people on low incomes to participate actively in society.
Using this methodology, the revised numbers of world poverty stand at a staggering ~30% of the population, or 2.1 billion.
Institutions like the WHO, World Bank, IMF, UNICEF and others can simply not admit to this reality, for it would essentially reveal that every aspect of our economic system is a lie, the free market enterprise system is a joke, and capitalism is tyrannical in scope and action.
Maybe someone has a solution here?
Is it so crazy to conceive of a universal, global, basic income? So impossible to consider dismantling and disavowing all stocks and securities exchanges? Would it be so inconceivable to place a $250,000/year CAP on earnings by any single individual, anywhere in the world?
Totally crazy, right?
Hey, I didn’t go to Harvard or Standford. I’m a blogger living off hard-boiled eggs and ramen, but that doesn’t make me wrong.
To quote Tom Hardy from Inception:
You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.
And the first step in that direction is expunging the words impossible, inconceivable, and unthinkable from our scientific, open-minded discourse.
The world is on fucking fire (literally) while the United States Supreme Court is trying to decide whether to legislate what women can do with their bodies.
Yep. I’d say it’s about time to sound the alarm.
But wait, there is some good news (for a change).
It’s difficult to imagine what the next big revolutionary idea will be because it has yet to emerge. But by the same token, it could very well be here already, sitting under our noses, waiting for enough people to pay attention.
Often, it is at the very edge of despair and defeat that we see the proverbial light. Not until we are face to face with our adversary, prepared to die, that we notice the chink in his armour.
In this regard, fortune favours the brave, the bold, and the daring.
It may not be until the very final moment when our opportunity presents itself, and when it does, I hope we’ll be ready to pounce.
Bonus if you understood the title of this essay.
Kudos if you looked it up.