In a speech to the US Congress on 18 September 2019, climate activist Greta Thunberg ended with the words “You must take action. You must do the impossible. Because giving up can never ever be an option.”
Do the impossible? Is that even possible? Actually, it is, because “possible” is such a poorly defined term that it is more or less useless. When you ask people if something is possible or not you always end up with an answer that doesn’t really tell you very much. If they say “no” does that just mean that they don’t know how to do it? Or does it mean that they don’t have the resources to do it? Right now, it would be impossible for me to fix a broken pencil because I have no sharpener, but if I had one the task would be trivially easy.
You can avoid the confusion between “possible” and “impossible” simply by reframing the question. Instead of asking if something is possible you should ask instead what would have to be done to make it happen. This focuses attention more on what needs to be done and less on the obstacles or lack of imagination.
This is how all big changes happen. To deploy a service like Google StreetView you need to have photos of every street, the software to combine them, the software to deliver the appropriate images, a legal department to deal with local privacy regulations and much more. Just asking if a service is possible might get you a “no” response, which leads you nowhere. Ask what you need to do it and you will force people to think about solving the problems.
Many problems are too big to be solved in one step, but the asking-what-needs-to-be-done approach encourages you to drill deeper, breaking down each part of the solution into smaller parts until you get to the point where it becomes straightforward to implement. So, a task like “build a StreetView service” can be broken down until you get to concrete, specific tasks like “hire a legal lead for the project”. Once you get to this level the magic starts to happen and your impossible task suddenly becomes reality.
This approach works for challenging new technical projects, it works on a much more local scale to address changes in your own life and it can also be used to tackle the most important social issues.
Back in the 1790s, the aim of abolishing slavery might have seemed utterly impossible. But some people decided to act and one of their first questions was to ask what they needed to do.
One conclusion was that they needed to start by disrupting the Atlantic slave trade, blocking the flow of new slaves from Africa to the new world. To do this they needed a law banning this trade and to achieve that they needed to lobby members of the UK parliament.
Breaking down the impossible task into even smaller pieces they addressed this goal through petitions, boycotts and a letter-writing program. So ultimately the lofty goal of ending slavery was reduced to an ordinary person sitting down to write a very ordinary letter to their member of parliament.
Backing these efforts was an organized propaganda campaign, with meme images and books by former slaves sold using the subscription system, foreshadowing today’s crowdfunding campaigns.
And it worked. In 1807 the UK parliament voted 283 to 16 to pass the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. With this law the Royal Navy could then blockade the Atlantic, searching suspicious ships and fining owners £100 for every slave found on their ships. The navy stopped 1600 ships and freed 150,000 slaves, bringing the Atlantic trade to a halt.
Today we have all of the know-how developed by campaigners in previous eras. Plus, we have a much greater understanding of the science behind these campaigns. Some of this research suggests new paths that we can take to build a new consensus and shift public opinion in new directions.
We just need to do the “impossible”, and the way to do this is to stop talking about possible and impossible altogether. Always ask instead simply what you will need to do to make something happen. Then go out and do those things.
This is a short summary of the talk “Making the Impossible Happen” at Impact Hub Stockholm on 27 November 2019.