How to build the impossible

Throughout history, we have tried to build impossible things.

Insanely impossible things.

Things that require innovation, complex combinations of technologies, and a lot of coordination and work.

And despite great difficulty, we’ve managed to successfully build many impossible things.

Like airplanes.

But the main reason behind our success at building the impossible may surprise you.

Human beings are clever.  We’re fundamentally a tool-creating and tool-using species.  Our brains are wired for being clever with tools, and our tools quickly become extensions of our ourselves.  Extensions of our minds.

We’re also very clever at working in teams.  Again, our brains are wired for it.  Successfully getting the right people together, organizing team goals, and executing group plans are primary reasons for our evolutionary success as a species.

So it’s natural to look back at human history and think, “Wow, we’ve built some incredible stuff.  Must be because we’re really clever.”

Yes, we’re clever.  But that’s only a small part of the mechanism behind our success.

Airplanes do not exist because we are clever.  They exist because we have always yearned to fly.

Ever since the first human being watched a bird gracefully fly across the sky, we’ve yearned for flight.  And this yearning has been reflected in our culture ever since that moment.  In our art, our stories, our use of language, and even our religions.

We use phrases like “I’m flying high!” when describing states of bliss.  Popular views of the afterlife involve us possessing wings.  Even the emblems we create for abstract concepts like governments and companies often involve the use of things with wings.  The yearning for flight is always visible.

Yearning is a key part of what makes us human.  And you can see yearning at work all the time if you look at all the really impossible things we’ve built.  We yearn to communicate, so we get the telegraph and telephone.  We yearn to tell stories, so we get movies and television.  We yearn to share our ideas on a global scale, so we get the Internet and the Web.

We succeed at building impossible things because of our deep yearning for the possibilities they make real.

This is an important lesson.  Because there are a lot of impossible things we haven’t created yet.

Lately I’ve been writing a lot about virtual worlds and the different tools I believe we need to build to make them broadly successful.  And these tools are going be almost impossible to build.

But I don’t care about how difficult it will be to create these tools.  Humans are clever, and we’ll figure that out.  If we focus on tools that leverage and augment our most human qualities, we’ll do just fine.  What I care about most is teaching people to yearn for the unique possibilities of these future technologies.

Good management is doing things right.  Good leadership is choosing to do the right things.

This applies to anyone trying to build the impossible.  And I bet you have a whole drawer full of impossible things you’d love to build.  We all do.  Personally, I also love it when people come to me with an idea for an impossible thing and ask for my help in making it a reality.  Figuring out the right blend of strategy and tactics to succeed.  Such challenges are what drive most of us in our daily work.

If you want to be a leader in building the impossible, you’ll need to carefully choose the right things to focus on.  And there are many right things you’ll need to choose to do.  It’s a long path to success.

But one of those critically important right things is to simply teach people to yearn for the breathtaking possibilities at the end of that path.

That’s the ticket to completing the journey.

“If you want to build a ship,
don’t drum up the men to gather wood,
divide the work and give orders.

Instead, teach them to yearn
for the vast and endless sea.”

-Antoine de Saint-Exupéry


-John “Pathfinder” Lester

(I touched on some of these ideas in my keynote presentation at the 2010 Second Life Community Convention.  Please check out my slides and video if you’re interested.)

7 thoughts on “How to build the impossible

  1. “What I care about most is teaching people to yearn for the unique possibilities of these future technologies.”

    Although I’ve resonated very strongly with the ideas presented in your last few posts I have a different perspective on this one. What I personally see as the more immediate challenge is actualizing the potential of *current* technology…using the experience of being an avatar embodied in a virtual world to enhance creativity, expand awareness and fulfill human potential.

    Maybe it’s my Buddhist leanings, but it seems to me that when we focus on yearning for some happy future we tend to not do the work of making good use of the present situation. I guess the ideal is some balanced state of mind where wc can make the utmost of the current situation while also working for a better future.

    • I see your point. Finding the right balance of anything is always important. But I see yearning for possibilities of future technologies as more than just “pie in the sky” thinking. It’s a continual motivator. And it motivates people all the way down the path to those futures, helping them focus on intermediate steps along the way. We yearned for flight, but we didn’t sit around dreaming for the space shuttle. We built gliders, then prop planes, then jets, then rockets.

  2. I agree with Exupery quote at the end partially…but there comes a time where you either drum up the men to gather the wood, divide the work and shout orders or you sit in misery yearning for your sea forever while watching someone else build the boat and NOT invite you for the ride.

    • I totally agree. Teaching yearning is a critical part of one’s strategy, but you also need good tactics such as effective project management.

      Sun Tzu said it best. “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”

      In my experience, the majority of organizations always seem to forget Tzu’s second sentence. Probably because tactics are much more publicly visible than strategic work, and a lot of tactical effort gives the appearance of “getting a lot of stuff done.”

      But without the right strategy, it’s just the noise before defeat.

  3. Pingback: Tweets that mention How to build the impossible | Be Cunning and Full of Tricks -- Topsy.com

  4. Pingback: Augmented Cities and Dreaming Wisely | Be Cunning and Full of Tricks

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