There are countless examples throughout history that illustrate the changing nature of what’s believed to be humanly possible at a given period in time. Here are three.
Before Roger Bannister became the first human to break the four-minute mile barrier in 1954, it was widely believed that no human would ever run a mile in under four minutes. It was considered physically impossible for humans to run at that speed. Bannister had run in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics and finished fourth in the 1,500-meter race (slightly shorter than a mile). This disappointing performance drove Bannister to develop his own training regimen of short, intense workout sessions to increase his stamina and pace.
On May 6, 1954, in Oxford, England, Bannister ran the mile in 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds. Following this groundbreaking feat, however, Bannister held the distinction of being the only human with a below-four-minute mile for less than seven weeks. John Landy finished the mile in 3:58.0 on June 21, 1954, and another 36 people ran the mile in under four minutes by 1956. In the following nine years, more than 200 other people did the same. What happened? A clear psychological barrier had been crossed. This was no longer considered impossible. Now it was brought inside the mental boundaries of what is seen as doable.
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After Orville and Wilbur Wright had begun flying their rudimentary airplanes at the beginning of the 20th century, not only were many people physically afraid of going on a plane, but many also resisted the idea on philosophic principles—as something we humans were not meant to do. Birds belong in the sky, and humans belong on earth. A short 100 years later, this thinking is clearly out of date.
Readers over the age of 50 might marvel at the technological innovations of wearable computers, humanoid robots and enhanced e-books, but for people younger than 20, this is the only experience they’ve ever known. The smartphone that fits in your hand has more computing power than Apollo 11, which landed on the moon in July 1969 for the first manned moonwalk. That was the pinnacle of human ingenuity then; now it’s something you can carry in your pocket. Today’s children are born into this reality, and for them this is normal. So it is with any invention: With time, the extraordinary becomes routine, and then obsolete.
If we set out to do something we believe is impossible, we will have little likelihood of accomplishing the task. On the other hand, if we believe something is attainable by us, in that very realization lies the seeds of the successful outcome. The mathematical term for this is existence theorem: when the chances of finding a solution to a problem are greatly increased by the knowledge that a solution exists.
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Shifts of Consciousness
Let’s play a little mind game and travel back in time to England 1545. You are a member of the court of King Henry VIII. You are well-respected and well-informed, and people seek your opinion on worldly matters.
One day, a courier arrives at court with the news that a scientist named Nicolaus Copernicus claims that the earth is not at the center of the universe but spins around the sun. Ridiculous, you think. Who will believe this? In fact, some of your peers say, “Hang the heretic, or better yet torture him until he recants!” You and your peers are not ignorant people. You are just convinced that this idea is nonsense. Who can blame you?
Consider the shift in consciousness that this bizarre information required. The brightest minds on earth all thought that the planets and stars revolved around us. Day was day and night was night. The stars were above in the heavens. The sun rose in the east and set in the west. The moon came on after darkness. Generally, there was order in the world.
We have only traveled less than 500 years back. Let’s jump back 500,000 years. What do we see? Rough life, harsh conditions. Now let’s jump forward the same amount of years. This vast horizon and more is your mental canvas, the evolutionary information contained in your genes.
The future is not the past. Time does not stop, nor does “life”—the process of mutation, adaptation and deepening awareness. Here’s a true mental challenge: Can you have a view of yourself that incorporates your entire span of existence? Can you step back and have a vision of your life that includes what you have been in the past, what you are today and all the promise of your future?
You represent the infinite potential of existence.
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