What is possible?

1. Imagination

What is possible?

Possibility is, by definition, open-ended. It excites precisely because we don't know where our imagination might take us.

Still, there are ends. I'm not sure I can swim across the English Channel, but I am sure I can't walk on water.

2. Physics

Creativity without constraints is just chaos. Imagination needs a canvas to materialise.

To answer the question "what is possible" is best done in reverse: what is not possible?

Here, the physicist David Deutsch offers a useful heuristic:

Deutsch is speaking within the scope of his multiverse concept, where everything that can happen will likely happen at some point.

Here's our first limit: physics.

As long as within the mechanics of the Universe, anything you can imagine is possible.

3. Knowledge

To make imagination real, you need the right knowledge.

Knowledge can be:

  • Theory — Explicitly expressed in language. What we know about the world encoded in words and symbols.

  • Intuition — Implicitly em-bodied and automatically executed through behaviour.

Theory is structured and rigid, intuition is dynamic and fluid.

Consider how nobody can learn how to ride a bike from a step a step-by-step manual. Similarly, you can't learn design or piano by reading about it. This is "felt" knowledge your body learns with experience: in relation to an environment and iterated through trial and error.

Towards possibilities, what you know in language is only really as relevant as far as you can convert it into effective behaviour — skill you know to apply dynamically in specific contexts.

4. History

Imagination is boundless. Physics is the hard limit. Knowledge is the soft limit.

Within knowledge, there's another limit: historical configuration.

Knowledge you lack can be acquired, but only to the point it has been uncovered so far. Total available knowledge is stored in the network of bodies and objects that make up civilisation. At every point in time, that network is configured in a way that enables some possibilities but not others.

For example, it took the Manhattan Project three years to successfully make an atomic bomb. Not because the knowledge wasn't already available: all contributing physicists were around and competent before. What took three years was the process of combining their knowledge into something new.

Similarly, cars can't exist without inventing the wheel first. But, once we have cars and planes, the only thing that keeps us from making flying cars is channeled synergy of knowledge that already exists.

5. Desire

Reaching down to the individual, the next limit is desire.

If the required knowledge is available and it only needs focused combination, you just have to want it enough. If you want it enough, you'll go for it, you'll learn and do what is required. You'll take the beating and turn setbacks into progress. Whatever it takes.

Desire, though, comes with two traps — both through self-delusion.

Intrinsic vs. mimetic

The first trap is that your desire is not intrinsic, but mimetic.

Humans are imitative creatures. Just like we learn to speak the same language and play by the same cultural values, we come to want the same things as those around us.

Because borrowed from others, mimetic desire is bound to fall apart in the face of challenges bound to arise. You simply don't want it enough to weather the inevitable storms and do what is necessary.

"He who cannot obey himself will be commanded." — Friedrich Nietzsche

In contrast, desire grounded in your genuine self fuels you to weather whatever storm head-on. Because doing so expresses who you are. You keep playing the game for it's own sake, not for the rewards to show off at the end.

Getting in your own way

The second trap is to not accept feedback; to deny what reality is telling you as you move through the journey. It's you valuing the comfort of your ego more than what potential is demanding of you.

Both forms of self-delusion have the same root.

If you really care, if the desire is truly yours, you'll want it enough by default. It doesn't feel like work, but purpose. Desire taken from others does feel like work. And, because you don't want it enough when push comes to shove, you're also driven to stick with how you know yourself over evolving through feedback.

To avoid the mimetic trap demands careful introspection and checking of your self. Peel back the layers of outside influence to find what authentically moves you. In the words of Socrates: "Know thyself."

Show up

All else is fallacious assumption, an excuse to not at least try.

People will say things like "I'm not as smart, I'm not as talented as him/her." As much as that might be true: if you are honest with yourself about your desires, you'll find your fit and try sincerely, finding and learning your path through whatever reality feeds back to you.

With such sincerity, even if you fail, you'll realise that it's not actually about the desire but about the journey itself. Your path shows itself as you walk it. Win or lose is irrelevant dichotomy: because you'll come out the other end genuinely changed either way. The only "competition" is with previous versions of yourself.


One thing I've learned over the years is that you can't ever really change someone.

But you can raise their ambitions. You can demand more of them in a way that expresses your belief in them. Inspired by such loving demand, they will change themselves.

That is true of how we relate to ourselves, too.

You will rarely change by beating yourself up about things you could've done better.

But** if you raise your ambitions from a sense of potential, then whatever you need to change will change — as a byproduct.**

The ambition works as an attractor that pulls you towards your future self. You just have to keep doing the work, keep showing up, and keep being kind to yourself as you move in the direction.

The case for being ambitious

Ambition can sound like a bit of a dirty word. But I'm convinced that people should absolutely be ambitious. Not for themselves, but for others — and the world.

In fact, I believe you should especially be ambitious if the word feels dirty to you. Because that means you're aware of the traps that come with ambition. It means you'll think deeply about your ambitions and won't choose them based on vanity.

In that sense, the opposite of ambition isn't humility as many pretentious people like to claim: humility in fact signals the thoughtfulness of one's ambition.** No, the opposite of ambition is pettiness: people who have nothing of their own to care about and so instead spend their lives caring about what everyone else is doing — without ever looking at themselves.**

It doesn't matter what the ambition really is. Whether someone wants to lose weight, get enlightened, master the piano or save the the world: as long as the ambition is sincere and genuine and doesn't come with baggage or out of irrational attachments, the pursuit will make them a better person over time.

And I think we can't get enough people like that in this world.

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