For an Innovator, Is Anything Ever Impossible?

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Let’s do a little thought experiment. Take a brief flight of fancy with me and imagine that we’ve somehow managed to transport a shinny new 787 jetliner to ancient Greece. We’ve taken the current state-of-the-art in aviation technology and placed it thousands of years back in time. Would it still fly?

Sure. Why not? It couldn’t refuel and there’s unlikely to be anywhere for it to land. It might start a new religion. But there’s no reason why it would not be able to fly. Much has changed in the world since those days long ago but the fundamental laws of physics are not among them. There’s been no shift in the nature of the universe that has somehow made flying machines possible. In reality, it’s always been possible. All that was needed was the ingenuity to figure out how to create such a device. The only relevant difference is our knowledge.

That’s not the way we usually think about what it means for something to be “possible,” is it? But it is how an innovator thinks about it. An innovator doesn’t allow current knowledge to determine what can’t be done. An innovator thinks: if a jetliner was “possible” in ancient Greece, what’s possible today that we just haven’t yet figured out?

The Novelist Eden Phillpots captured this notion, writing: The universe is full of magical things patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.

Can we ever be sure that anything is truly impossible? I don’t think so. Not that every idea should be pursued. Some ideas are more promising than others, but existing knowledge should never the soles criterion for deciding which ones are worthwhile. There may be some things that are utterly impossible—now or ever—but we have no way of knowing what they are.

What have you concluded is impossible? Are you sure? How do you know? Maybe it’s just something that hasn’t yet been figured out. (And maybe you’re getting close.)

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