Making the impossible possible

Unless you know it is impossible

One weekend morning, I got up at 7 am. I wore a white t-shirt and black shorts, I tightened my shoes and went down to gym in our apartment building. I had one machine in mind. The treadmill. This wasn't a very active year for me. The only exercise I was familiar with was walking to the bus stop to get to work, and walking to the bus stop to get to school. But that day, I was determined to do cardio.

I went straight to the machine, pressed a few buttons that beeped in response. The machine exhaled, reset to a ground position and then a countdown started. When it reached zero, the tread started rolling. I hadn't warmed up. I didn't have a bottle of water or electrolyte readily available. I was unprepared for what was to follow.

The machine slowly sped up from a walk, to a brisk. From a jog to a sprint. I quickly decided that this was too fast for me. I couldn't last the 30 minutes I was determined to run at this speed. Without missing a step, I pressed the downward pointing arrow until it brought the speed down to 5 miles an hour.

I ran for a whole 10 minutes before I felt it. I was out of breath. I could both hear and feel my heart pumping. It was so loud that I thought it would leap out of my mouth and splash onto the wall in front of me. With my body redirecting the blood to more essential parts, my vision started to dim. The worst thing you can do if don't run, is to start running. I started to wonder, why in the world did I want to run in the first place?

But I couldn't stop. I was determined. I kept the pace and held on to the rails for support.

20 minutes beeped. I was exhausted. For a moment, I thought I was going to die. How is it possible that I couldn't even run for 30 minutes? 30 minutes! That's one episode of Parks & Recs, if you include the commercials. But then something happened. I call it divine intervention. The scientific term is Second Wind. It's like being injected with life itself. I didn't feel the weight of my body anymore, and my heart was silent. I kept running never missing a step.

When the machine beeped 25 minutes, that burst of energy was depleted. I was dead. I threw my hands on the controls until I managed to decrease the speed to 4 miles an hour. There was no way I could last those 5 minutes. But giving up was not an option.

Every morning, my two sisters went to the gym where they exercised for an hour, then come home all refreshed. They'd tell me they use the treadmill or the bike for 30 minutes to warm up before switching to other machines. For them it was a pleasant and relaxing time. For me, it was hell.

I was dying on the first machine while they were only using it as a warm-up. I'm bigger then both of them, and stronger. At the very least, I had to survive these last five minutes. I could collapse and die after. My tombstone will not say "failed to run for 30 minutes".

Here I am telling you the story today. This means, not only I completed the 30 minutes, but I also survived. Twice a week, I'd run on the treadmill. Every single time it was hard. I didn't quite get used to it, but I tried at least.

One day, my younger sister comes to me and tells me that she had been lazy. All she was doing now was 45 minutes of treadmill and then come back home. I almost gasp.

"How? How do you do it?" I asked. "I run 30 minutes, and I feel like dying. How do you run for 45 minutes?"

"Run?" She asked surprised. "You run for 30 minutes straight? Wow, I only run like 5 minutes. I walk for the rest of the time."

Now I wonder. If I knew that they weren't running the whole time, would I be able to do it? My main motivator was that my sisters could do it. I only did it because I thought it was possible, even though my body was failing.


There is a passage in Steve Jobs' biography by Walter Isaacson where a similar thing happened. Jobs and Bill Atkinsons, were invited to Xerox research labs in the early 1980s. Bill was an early Apple employee that worked on graphics. The Xerox engineers presented a secret project they had been working on. The Graphical User Interface or GUI. Jobs and his team were so impressed that they decided to incorporate this new paradigm into their next computer, the Macintosh.

Atkinson started working on a feature he called Regions. What it did was to allow a user to move windows around the screen. While they are moving the top window overlap the ones beneath it:

Atkinson made it possible to move these windows around, just like shuffling papers on a desk, with those below becoming visible or hidden as you moved the top ones. Of course, on a computer screen there are no layers of pixels underneath the pixels that you see, so there are no windows actually lurking underneath the ones that appear to be on top.

We take it for granted but this was marvelous. But here comes the kicker:

Atkinson pushed himself to make this trick work because he thought he had seen this capability during his visit to Xerox PARC. In fact the folks at PARC had never accomplished it, and they later told him they were amazed that he had done so.

The only reason Bill Atkinson was able to achieve it was because he thought he had seen the Xerox engineers do it.

Another one is the story of George Dantzig, the mathematician who pioneered the simplex algorithm. He came late to class one day, to find two problems written on the board. Thinking it was homework, he copied it down and went home to solve it. "The problems seemed to be a little harder to do than usual," but he did not know that these were two of the most famous unsolved problems in statistics.

Of course, he solved them both turned in his homework.

The very act of thinking that something is impossible makes it impossible. The same goes for believing that something is possible. It gives us the courage we need to push the boundary.


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