“All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.”
—Arthur Schopenhauer, German philosopher (1788 – 1860)
I am willing to bet that at some point in your life you have already achieved the impossible. How am I so sure? One simple reason: the concept of impossibility tends to be both subjective and malleable.
If you were sent back in time (I know, that’s “impossible”, but humor me) a mere 120 years and told anyone you encountered that during your lifetime you had traveled in an “airplane” and that this kind of thing is routine and happens all the time where you’re from, you would probably be dismissed as a nutcase. Human flight, not so long ago, was widely considered “impossible”.
Go back 400 years – not even a perceptible blink in geologic time – and try explaining to the powers that be that it is a provable fact that the earth revolves around the sun, and not the other way around, and you might very well be putting your life in jeopardy.
Or, if you’re a Generation Xer like myself (or older), just imagine your childhood self’s reaction to the reality of finding any piece of existing information you are curious about within seconds…on your phone…which, incidentally, isn’t even plugged into a wall!
Sure, these are examples of huge breakthroughs that for most of human history seemed impossible to the collective yet are now taken for granted every day by many of us.
But the same idea applies on an individual level, as well.
If you’ve been around for even a decade (let alone two or more), what once seemed impossible for you, personally, eventually became not just possible but something you actually achieved. This is because you changed physically, you developed some skills, and/or something in your environment changed. As a result, your concept of what was possible also changed. Maybe it happened incidentally, or even accidentally, but you somehow were able to achieve something that earlier in life you never imagined you would or could.
You became tall, or nimble, enough to reach the cookie jar. Someone showed you how to throw a ball, read, write, send an e-mail, cook something, ride a bike, drive a car, or play a particular song on a particular musical instrument, and you practiced doing it until it became automatic. The Internet became available to you and you learned how to navigate it. You developed the capacity to teach yourself things. You explored: your neighborhood, a part of the world far away from your neighborhood, a growing interest, an aspect of your own potential. You read a particular book or were introduced to a particular person and this blew open your worldview and forever changed you.
And now, looking back, you can see that your prior worldview, which you once were convinced was The Truth, turned out to be seriously flawed and severely limiting.
I’m here to tell you that your worldview is still seriously flawed and severely limiting.
So is mine!!!
The tricky part – I find – is in dropping my egoic defenses long enough for my current belief systems to be punctured so that a more expansive sense of possibility can seep in.
We often have plenty of conditioning to overcome, as well, before we can accept the reality of greater possibilities for ourselves.
Once we are able to break through these barriers, however, all kinds of “impossible” things suddenly become possible.
From Impossible to Possible: Step by Step
In his book Be Iron Fit, Don Fink describes the process of achieving the impossible as having four distinct psychological stages or phases. These phases are progressive and predictable. Using the example of an ordinary person considering the prospect of completing an Ironman triathlon, he describes this process as follows (the underlining is mine):
The first phase is Nonbelief. For most of us, the first triathlon we see is the Hawaii Ironman on television…And the first thought that comes to your mind as you stare at the screen is, “That’s impossible.”
You learn the exact distances: a 2.4-mile ocean swim, followed by a 112-mile bike race, and then a full 26.2-mile marathon – back-to-back and all in the same day…
The second phase is Realization. You watch more of the race…You get pulled into it. “Wow, there are people who can actually do this!” The impossible starts to become possible…at least it becomes possible for these people.
The third phase is Curiosity. You start asking questions. Why do these people do this? What motivates them? How do they do it? How do they train?
Then comes the final stage, The Dream. You ask yourself the big question: I wonder if I could ever do it? I wonder if I could ever be an Ironman?
That’s it! …In a short period, you go from believing that something is definitely not possible to believing that it is possible. In fact, you begin to think that it might even be possible for you.
Having experienced this process for myself, in the specific context of becoming an “Ironman” and otherwise, I can attest to its truth.
Yet, I still personally struggle with applying the lessons learned to certain other aspects of my life. Chalk it up to one of the challenges of being human (i.e., it never stops being challenging!). Certainly, practice with moving through this process in any realm is of great benefit, and a success in one area can bolster one’s confidence and help facilitate breakthroughs in other ones. But because the notion of impossibility can be so subjective, and learned helplessness can be so pervasive, it is clear to me that the psychological hold our subconscious beliefs have on us can be treacherous regardless of who we are, what we may already have accomplished, and where we might be in our particular life’s journey.
I therefore write this post as much for myself as for you – as a reminder that our ideas about impossibility must be systematically and deliberately and consciously and persistently challenged if they are ever to be conquered.
How to Dislodge Stubborn (Unhelpful) Beliefs
We are typically only motivated to bother taking initiative in a particular direction when we believe that it is (or might be) possible for us to achieve a desired result. If we are convinced that the desired result is impossible, we most likely will not take any action at all. If we are not sure about the possibility of achieving something but are curious about it, we may take a few tentative, exploratory steps. The stronger our conviction and confidence about the achievability of something we aspire to, the more likely we are to take action, especially massive action. And massive action is usually what it takes to achieve the impossible.
Whether or not we are conscious of what our beliefs about what is possible even are, it is those beliefs that dictate our behavior. Therefore, if we want to carve inroads towards expanding our sense of the possible, we must confuse our subconscious by taking action where and when we normally would not. We need to act as if something were possible, even if we don’t fully believe it yet. This is how we chip away at what is potentially merely an illusion (even if a compelling one) of impossibility.
Think of it as reverse engineering an incredible accomplishment so that the perceived-to-be-impossible goal is transformed into something you soon enough believe might be possible (and therefore worth taking action towards). This is commonly known as the “fake it ‘til you make it” strategy, and it can be very effective. To this day when I am nervous, say, before performing onstage, I simply act as if I am perfectly calm and at ease. Before long, it becomes the truth. And, of course, repeated experiences of successfully implementing this technique only serve to reinforce its usefulness.
The fact is you undoubtedly already have achieved something you previously believed was impossible (for you, if not in general) once before. Maybe it was a degree that you earned. A desired relationship you found/fostered/co-created. An addiction or bad habit you overcame. Some overwhelming emotional pain you survived. Debt you climbed out of. A skill you acquired. A fear you conquered or abated. A problem or challenge you met. A place of contentment or well-being you reached. Search your personal history thoroughly and honestly and you are bound to encounter examples of this. You may not be able to recall many of them (or you may discount them) if you are, say, in a very depressed state, but I can all but guarantee you they are there.
So, let yourself dream about those things you desire most. Relax your insistence on their impossibility, just for a moment (you can always reinstate your nonbelief at a later time!). Do this regularly. Daily, at least.
Think of something you strongly desire but that currently seems, or feels, impossible for you, personally, to realize. How would someone else – someone who was in your position but believed without a doubt that achieving this goal was totally possible – behave? What kinds of things might (s)he do? Make a list. Pick the easiest one. Do it. See where it leads. Then repeat this process until you die. What do you have to lose? You might just amaze yourself – and others – by shaking the realm of the impossible at its core and blasting open the realm of the possible.