Impossible is a Human Invention

We can use Philippe Petit's sentence, "Impossible is a human invention," to prove that nothing is impossible.

He stood a quarter mile above the ground. The only support between the man and the far-down-below ground was a wire. Spectators gazed with joy (along with, I assume, some empathetic nerves), while police men and women scowled with anger (although presumably some were entertained).

On an August morning in 1974, Philippe Petit walked a wire strung between the Twin Towers. (His crew had strung the wires between the towers the previous night.)

You may have heard this story. It was produced into an Oscar-winning documentary, Man on Wire. I learned about Mr. Petit on a delightful TED Radio Hour segment on NPR.

Of all the great sentences spoken throughout the segment (and the rest of that show), one stood out among the others:

Impossible is a human invention.

Those are Petit's words in response to one of the many excited questions from the host, Guy Raz.

Immediately upon hearing it, my brain (as my brain is known to do) started to wander, ponder, and plan. Sure, the sentence is uplifting, I thought, but what does it really mean?

A Literal Meaning

At first, I took it literally -- we humans made up the idea of something being impossible.

Yeah, that certainly sounds good. But, as a friend and coworker of mine pointed out, the laws of physics prove that some scenarios are, in fact, impossible.

I'm nosy. So I replied, "Like what, for example?"

He thought for a moment. Soon he said, "Like, if that guy would have fallen off the wire, he would have fallen down and not up."

I thought to myself, touche, and we ended that conversation.

A Physical Law

But let's think about that -- the idea of a physical law. A physical law explains that:

... a particular phenomenon always occurs if certain conditions [are] present.

Physics professionals do not take laws lightly. Laws are scrutinized far more than even theories that appear to be repeatedly true. Here's a good article on some physics' definition comparisons.

After thinking through some scenarios, I started forming a conclusion that our sentence (Impossible is a human invention) wasn't as cool or important as I originally thought.

An Alternate Perspective

But, then I had a thought -- What if Philippe had some sort of device worked into his clothing that would force him to fall up instead of down?

I know, it's ridiculous. And, as you're probably thinking, that doesn't disprove any physical law. I know.

Here's my hypothesis:

Given a set of predictable conditions, there exist natural laws which prove certain outcomes are impossible. However, as humans, we have the ability to alter our environment to our benefit, thus making otherwise predictable conditions unpredictable. Therefore, nothing is truly impossible.

Putting It To The Test

I find hypotheses and theories (even my own) to be boring. I want to see them come to life. You can test this theory in three steps, similar to The Scientific Method.

  1. Identify an impossibility scenario.
  2. Change the conditions of the scenario.
  3. Test!

Think of the last time you said, "That's impossible." My latest scenario was something like this:

The client wants to build a robot that cooks and delivers bacon to their bed at 6:42 a.m. on the first Tuesday of every month. Their budget is $12.50, and I need to turn a profit.

"That's impossible," I said. And frankly, it is, but only under those conditions.

Considering our three steps, if we change a condition, we can create a solution. Maybe we have to change $12.50 to $12.5 million, or maybe bacon needs to be sausage. But in some way, and some how, it can be accomplished.

Wrapping Up

What I'm getting at is quite simple.

Impossible is a human invention is not literally correct. Our natural world has impossibilities in certain situations. It's up to you to change the situation to make that event or task becomes possible. In other words, you can use the motivation from the sentence, Impossible is a human invention, to prove the age-old cliche, Nothing is impossible.

Now, go accomplish something you don't think you could.

Oh, and full disclosure -- I do not know how to build robots, and I would never substitute sausage for bacon.

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