The Power of Impossibilities

Olivier MessiaenI’ve always hated the New Age movement slogan “nothing is impossible.” First of all, that is wrong. Second, for those who preach the motto, they often aren’t doing much real creating in their lives. For those of you who have adopted this adage, you are missing the great advantages of being in touch with reality.

Before we hear a chorus of my truth and your truth, my reality and your reality, here is an experiment you can conduct. Choose a meal you ate yesterday, and try to eat it again today. I mean, the very same meal, not just a version of the same menu. This will help you understand that some things, even seemly simple things, are not always possible.

I suppose the phrase “nothing is impossible” is meant to give people hope, courage, and fortify what must be assumed to be their terribly weak will-power. Dumbo’s magic feather comes to mind. Hold this feather and you can fly. Hold on to this notion and you can accomplish great things.

I began to understand the power of impossibilities when I was a student at the Boston Conservatory. One of the composers we studied was the great Twentieth Century French composer Olivier Messiaen. I read his Technique De Mon Language Musical (“Technique of my musical language”) several times. I still pick it up to this day to get a touch of his wisdom. One of his central ideas was that, and this is how he put it, there is magic in impossibilities.

He wasn’t being abstract. His book reveals how certain music scales and rhythms cannot be transposed or inverted. Before I completely lose you, think of the name Bob. If you try to spell it backwards, you still get Bob. It is impossible to spell some words backwards and get something different like you can with the name David. Backwards it’s Divad. Totally different.

Messiaen was a Catholic mystic and loved creating compositions that had natural mysteries built into the structure of his music. Some impossibilities are pretty cool. Just to have a little fun thought experiment, if suddenly it became true that nothing is impossible, then suddenly most of Messiaen’s music would disappear. So would my nickname. The irony is that if nothing was impossible, Messiaen’s music would become impossible, contradicting the claim. Hussein Nishah said, “If you think nothing is impossible, try slamming a revolving door.”

Time, at least in this time-space dimension, only moves in one direction – forward. You don’t get younger and younger, go back into your mother’s womb, then separate into sperm and egg.

It is impossible to get back to the past. Time is non-retrogradable. The past is over, and that’s just how it is. This fact can bring you a new burst of creative energy. You will not longer feel the need to make the past right, resolve it, fix it, relive it, or change it in any way.

Your mind can have the bad habit of being fixated on the past. But, you can change the channel. Even for those who “live in the past,” it only in the present that they can think they are somewhere else.

Nice to have had a past. All that learning, all those skills we get to use. Knowing now what we didn’t know in high school. But it is the ability to be focused on the present that enables us to reach and create the future.

Impossibilities often lead to hierarchical choices. Because it is impossible to be in two places at once, one may have to choose which place to be. What if your son is the starting pitcher for the high school baseball team, and your daughter is playing the lead role in the elementary school play, and what if they were happening at the very same time? There are limited choices available because of the impossibilities. You could watch your son play, or you could watch your daughter perform, or you could miss them both. But you can’t see them both, because it is impossible to in our physical world to be in two places at the same time. You might think, “Hey, nowadays, we can Skype.” But that’s not being in two places at the same time. It is being in one place, and electronically viewing another.

Impossibilities are part of our world. Many things are impossible. Sometimes we know that, and sometimes we do not know that simple fact. Some things seem impossible, but as it turns out, they are possible. Sometimes we don’t know. To proclaim everything is possible is folly. But when it is asserted, it comes from the idea of having a positive attitude, that by holding that belief, you will do better, that the subconscious mind will attract and manifest what you want. This is the old “Thought is creative.” Think and grow rich, the power of positive thinking, and all of the latest variations of this old chestnut of an idea.

In the creative process, THE most successful process for accomplishment in history, you need to know where you are in relationship to where you want to be. You have to develop a clear eye, open mind, and truthful awareness if you are to adjust your actions successfully. But, those who know little about the real creative process, who think it is a matter of mind tricks, say wonderful sounding platitudes that are designed to hide reality by imposing a positive spin on it:

“With love and patience, nothing is impossible.”
Daisaku Ikeda

“Virtually nothing is impossible in this world if you just put your mind to it and maintain a positive attitude.”
Lou Holtz

“Without faith, nothing is possible. With it, nothing is impossible.”
Mary McLeod Bethune

“Nothing is impossible in this world. Firm determination, it is said, can move heaven and earth. Things appear far beyond one’s power, because one cannot set his heart on any arduous project due to want of strong will.”
Yamamoto Tsunetomo

“Nothing is impossible; there are ways that lead to everything, and if we had sufficient will we should always have sufficient means. It is often merely for an excuse that we say things are impossible.”
Francois de la Rochefoucauld

“Nothing is impossible to a willing heart.”
John Heywood

“Future orientation is combined with a notion and expectation of progress, and nothing is impossible.”
Alan Dundes

And before Waterloo Napoleon Bonaparte said, “The word impossible is not in my dictionary.”

Before he died in his early 30s and wasn’t around to see his empire fall apart, Alexander the Great said, “There is nothing impossible to him who will try.”

If you thought that the key to success was to think nothing is impossible, you would try to impose that idea on yourself and to do that you must ignore reality as it is. You will be disappointed when things don’t work out. You might think you didn’t have the right attitude, faith, or courage. Instead of learning how to do better next time, you will try to increase the intensity of your belief. Yet in the creative process, what you belief makes no difference at all. What you do, what you learn, what you experience over time, what you master, how well you create does matter. And you don’t need slogans to hide the truth of the universe we live in, in which some things are impossible and we are enriched by the magic of that fact.

A Life in Transition

Change AheadTransition means from somewhere to somewhere. If you are in a period of transition right now in your life, you have left the life you were living, and you have not arrived at the life you are moving to. It might be a career change, a relationship change, a loss, a move, a change of heart, a change of interests, a change of finances, a change of health.

There are many changes we go through in life. These major changes can seem a little scary if you don’t know where you are going. They can seem a bit disorienting if you do know where you want to go, but don’t have a clue as to how to get there. They can seem driven by conflict if the change was not of your own choosing, such as losing a job or a relationship in which you were left. In those cases, you thought you were fine, but then, you had to rethink your entire life.

These periods, while sometimes hard, are often some of the best things that can happen to you. While you are going through that, you won’t be able to appreciate the change. But later, once you have landed in your new life, once you have landed on your feet with an even better life than the one you have left, you will look back in retrospect and see the transition for what it was, a period of growth, soul searching, rediscovery, and renewal.

Our friend, Candice Carpaenter ran emerging businesses at American Express, won an Emmy for a documentary series when she was a senior executive of Time Warner, and she is the founder of iVillage. And after she left iVillage, she wrote a wonderful book about a life in transition called Chapters.
In Chapters, she talks about the profound cycles of change a life can take.
The first stage she calls The Gig Is Up.

This is when you know that what you have been doing is over. Perhaps you know it intuitively. Perhaps you know it consciously. But somehow you know it’s over, and know it rather deeply. What had been your life can no longer go on. It is unsupportable on some fundamental level.

When you try to hold on to a job, career, relationship, living situation, or the direction your life has taken, and, to use Candice’s phrase, the gig is up, change will be thrust upon you with greater and greater force until you let go. The more you try to hold on, the more the intensity of the tornado that is pulling you out of the present unworkable situation.

The next stage in the pattern is Falling.
Candice describes Falling this way: “disengaged, disidentified, and disenchanted, we fall into disorientation.” This is the most frightening experience we feel in the cycle.
Then comes A Walk In The Desert in which you are able to reflect about the most existential issues of your life.

Next comes Stirrings.
Candice describes it as: “All the threads of your past ultimately will be woven together as you become an accomplished creator.” Let me quote that again: “All the threads of your past ultimately will be woven together as you become an accomplished creator.”
This stage is followed by A Stake in the Ground, in which you begin to focus and then commit yourself to your new way of life.

Candice describes still more stages in the cycle that enable you to build your new life. There is much wisdom and truth in her observations about the nature of change. Change often is a kind of death followed by a resurrection.

One thing that will be helpful, if you are going through this type of transition, is to not spend time resenting that the past is over. The faster you can come to terms with reality, the better you will be able to move to your next stage of creating your life. And remember that creating is not problem solving. If you attempt to make a transition by reacting to the conflict you feel, you will only fall into an oscillating pattern in which any success you create will not last, and you will revert back into something that is not sustainable.

If you are in transition, and you don’t know what you want, get into motion. Do things, little things. Create little projects. Built your creative muscles. Volunteer for local charities, get involved with the good works your community is doing. Do not spend a lot of time sitting around feeling sorry for yourself.

In your period of transition, if that is where you are right now in your life, you don’t need to know where it is going to finally land. And, this is key, if you start to move in any direction, you will have the momentum you need to create your future more easily than if you were not moving at all.

Don’t see the period of transition as something bad. See it as something real, and you are closer to the nature of such periods in our lives. A time to rethink, reflect, reevaluate, and then set the direction for the next major period you want in your life.

Just Add an Egg

Screen Shot 2015-02-16 at 12.10.37 AMIn the 1952, Betty Crocker introduced a new easy to make cake mix. All you needed to do was add water, stir, and bake. The strategic product direction for the company was to create goods that were almost effortless to make, for example, Bisquick, whose slogan was, “90 seconds from package to oven.” Bisquick was “invented” in 1930 after one of their sales executives traveling in a train dining car complimented the railroad chef on his outstanding fresh biscuits. The chef told him his secret, that he had made a pre-mixed batter consisting of lard, flour, baking powder, and salt. All he had to do was put it in a baking pan and heat. Back home at the corporation, the executive replicated the chef’s idea of a mixture that was ready to go right into the oven, and created Bisquick. The product hit the shelves in 1931 and was an instant sensation.

General Mills thought that the instant cake mix would also be an instant hit, but to their surprise, sales were low and not moving. The company engaged two business psychologists Dr. Burleigh Gardner and Dr. Ernet Dichter. Their studies found that housewives felt guilty about making a cake so easily. Somehow, it went against their notion of what it is to be a good 1950’s housewife. So the psychologists suggested one additional step in the process, which was for the housewife to add one egg to the mixture. The mixture didn’t need them to add an egg for it to work. But by putting in that direction, women felt like they were doing their job. Of course, the egg was really symbolic of their identity as good wives and mothers. Ease and convenience were important, but not if it got in the way of their image of themselves.

This little story has a world of insight in it. If the 1950’s housewife were focused on creating a satisfactory outcome in the most convenient way, adding water to the mix would be fine. How many other extra steps, or symbolic gestures do we add, just to bolster our identity? Often, the symptoms of identity issues are found in small, almost invisible acts.

For many people, if success comes too easily, they can’t handle it. They think that they didn’t earn it. When that dynamic is in place, the pattern is for the person to manage to screw up his or her success over time. Often, people feel better about themselves having failed than succeeded if the success came too easily. They are equating success or failure with how much they thought they did or didn’t earn the success.

You want something. That is the outcome. If it came to you in some miraculous way or if you had to work your fingers to the bone, what difference does it make? Some people have more talent than others. Talent only means that some skill or mentality comes easily. Others with less talent who have the same goals must work much harder to accomplish similar results. It would be nice if we could just snap our fingers and have more talent and natural ability. But the fact is, we have as much as we have. That is the starting point, but not the ending point.

Many people who ended up accomplishing astonishing results did so because of their lack of natural ability, so they had to work a bit harder than more talented people. It says nothing about the person him or herself. The dedication to creating the result matters. The process will be as easy or hard as it has to be. While people love to glorify process, it matters little. To Mozart, music came easily. It seemed to pour out of his imaginative mind. For Beethoven, music didn’t pour freely from his mind. He worked it over and over, testing, experimenting, developing, growing, and deepening his artistic abilities. Both men produced some of the greatest music that has ever been written. But what if Mozart had an identity issue in which he thought that his music came to him too easily, so, therefore, it couldn’t be very good? Or what if Beethoven thought that if he didn’t have the talent of a Mozart he should give up trying to compose? Of course, it is easy to see the absurdity of the concept when it comes to Mozart or Beethoven. But when this concept strikes closer to home, it is taken more seriously.

Here is a theme to understand throughout your own life: what you think about yourself doesn’t matter a bit in the creative process. You don’t need to add an egg when it is not needed just to pander to your identity issues if you happen to have any. Use the egg example to see if there are other ways you are creating false symbols to prove to yourself that you have earned your success. If you have talent, nice. If you don’t have talent for those things you want to do, also nice. Just a different menu. Remember the Mozart/Beethoven lesson, and carry on.

The Faces of Facebook

FacesSince Dr. Wayne Andersen and I are writing a book on identity, I’ve become more aware of how people present themselves on Facebook. What is interesting is that it makes no difference what part of the world anyone is in, they all have something in common, and that is, most of them want to be Rock Stars! This is what Paul Simon calls their “photo op.” You can see a European face, an African Face, a Chinese Face, a Latin face, an American face, a South American face, a Middle Eastern face and you will see something wonderful about human nature. People love to present themselves with a degree of glamour or drama or theater or that old time Rock and Roll.

Of course, there are a lot of folks who simply look at the camera and smile, creating a very down to earth, here’s who I am, no frills picture. And then there is the “Let’s see how cool I can be,” or the “Let’s see how weird I can be, “or the, “Let’s see how sweet and innocent I can be.”

Of course, most of these folks know they are putting on a show. But it’s a good show. Too often, we think in terms of cultural differences. But beyond unique culture, and a million miles from politics, there is the universal human instinct to stand out, even if that’s not actually reflective of your true life. Every culture has the arts because the creative process and love of art is universal. We can groove on the unique aspects of various music even if we are not part of that culture. In fact, the discovery of a new and different style of music can enchant and enrich the world, as it did when Reggae became a world sensation. And after that, more and more styles and types became the globalization of culture.

And speaking of Paul Simon, his great album Graceland fused America Rock with music from South African township music. When I was in China a few years ago, I was amazed with Chinese Rock Videos that played on public TV, and the kids, with their punky hair and serious looks, were perfectly mainstream rock central. Indian music and music videos are a complete mystery to me, but one that always makes me smile, and I so admire their talents and filmmaking skills. And on it goes as musicians hear each other and like what they hear. Year ago, people talked about the “global community,” which, then, didn’t mean too much. Now there actually is a global community thanks to technology and people’s innate desire to be in touch with each other, to learn from each other, to share the best of culture from around the planet, to become part of each other’s lives.

The world of Facebook is a kind of funny part of the universe. A slice of humanity that cuts through differences and reveals the most beautiful deeper truth that human beings are often kind of cute.