Expanding conceptions of the possible
I’ve been reflecting recently on how much ambitions are defined by what we believe is possible and how much that’s guided by what we see around us.
I picked up the book Living With A Seal on a whim a few weeks ago and it’s been, surprisingly, quite motivating for me. The story follows Jess Itzler – a rich, eccentric entrepreneur in New York – as he hires a Navy SEAL to live in his house for a month as his fitness instructor. The extreme workouts that the SEAL makes Itzler do in the midst of his normal business life and family, as well as Itzler’s observations and writing style make it a fun read.
What stuck with me about the book though, is that it extended my conception of what is possible for working out - it enriched my imagination. Itzler’s workouts with the SEAL involve things like running 6 miles at fast speeds multiple times a day and doing an outrageous numbers of push ups and pull ups. All the workouts are beyond my abilities but the concepts involved have encouraged me to push my limits the past few weeks.
After reading this book, I dug a bit further and it turns out the SEAL in Itzler’s book is actually David Goggins, who is now famous for his extreme athletic feats in ultramarathons and breaking world records. I picked up his book “Can’t Hurt Me” which is his story as he transformed his life from aimlessness and lethargy into clarity of purpose. In the book, Goggins pushes himself repeatedly to extend his conception of what he is able to withstand. He does this first with becoming a Navy SEAL and then he keeps going into ultramarathons and beyond. He constantly is seeking radically uncomfortable situations “to toughen his mind” (as he puts it).
As deeply social animals it makes sense that we are very dependent on seeing others do things to extend our own world views. We get inspired to try new things usually when we see or hear of other people’s actions. It makes me wonder how much more we could extend ourselves in new directions by actively seeking out more examples to aspire towards; getting broad exposure to these new ideas and methods becomes a way of breaking through stasis.
Sports is full of this type of breakthroughs especially since they are so quantitative: the 4 minute mile seemed impossible until someone was able to break it; the growth in number of axels ice skaters can do has steadily grown over a century:
It’s the same in science - once we realize what is possible, people quickly tend towards solving for it. I was recently reading about Einstein’s development of the theory of general relativity and I didn’t realize how close David Hilbert was to getting there first. This was a decade after Einstein’s 1905 paper on special relativity and Hilbert and Einstein were both racing towards solving the puzzle. They centered in on the solution at almost the same time (which later became a contentious debate). This is just one example among many where once an opportunity is evident, people rush towards it.
If exposure to the different can change our worldview beyond local maxima, it makes sense to invest a lot trying to seek it out.
Find more ways of getting more exposed to the weird. Seek out outliers in whatever it is you love to do. Find those pushing boundaries and learn out how they do it. Mint new role models for your niche interests. Surprise yourself with what is possible.