how to do the impossible
“It always seems impossible until it’s done." ~ Nelson Mandela
When a group of friends comes to you and says that they’ve found a great deal on a 2-hour private Mediterranean boat cruise and want to know if you’re in, you say yes. You don’t think about the fact that you swim like a rock and are therefore mildly terrified of deep water without a pool’s edge or lifeguard in sight to cling to. You simply say yes. Because it’s summer. It’s southern Spain. And it’s what you do.
So when you subsequently find yourself scared shitless on a sailboat off the coast of Malaga on a blazing hot summer day with half of that group of friends taking turns diving from the boat into the water and playfully splashing about, and the other half shouting for you to jump in and join them, you’ve got a choice to make. Do you:
- Disregard the mind-numbing fear that’s gripping you, your bowels that keep threatening to loosen on you, and your lack of strong swimming skills, and take the plunge? Or,
- Act like a sensible person and say, “No thanks, guys, just gonna stay on board and make sure the chips don’t get soggy,” and miss the opportunity to add ‘swam in the Mediterranean’ to your list of ‘have you evers’?
If there’s anything I loathe more than the fear of ending up in a watery grave, it’s the fear of missing out on a chance to make an amazing memory. So, after watching my friends enjoy themselves for a few moments longer, I walked to the edge of the boat and stood there peering down into the water, hoping I’d be able to will myself into doing the impossible.
How to Do the Impossible
Find your motivation (aka, ‘the push’)
What is the one thing that makes you feel like you can’t not do this? The one thing that makes the impossible task looming in front of you seem like something you must attempt, even if you don’t prove to be successful at it? This is the thing that will give you that initial push that you need to get started with an impossible task, and will keep fueling your fire to see it through to the end. In almost every situation, that push will come from one of the following:
Years earlier, I was faced with a similarly impossible moment. I was at the famed Rick’s Café in Jamaica, nervously waiting my turn to jump off of one of the surrounding cliffs into the cool blue waters below (I know, I know. For someone who can’t swim well, I jump into deep water an awful lot). I wasn’t even sure if was actually going to jump. I waved 2 or 3 others ahead of me, while I continued to work up the nerve. Just as I was starting to talk myself out of it, one of the guys who’d seen me around the resort that I was staying at, sauntered up and took a seat on a rock off to the side of the diving ‘platform’. He took one look at my terror-stricken face and started playfully chiding me, telling me that I wasn’t going to jump, that I was too scared, that I should just walk back down and join my friends at the bar. It turns out that someone telling me that I couldn’t, was all the motivation I needed to realize that I could. When my detractor was right in the middle of one of his wisecracks, I ran to the edge of the cliff and jumped. Geronimo, ho.
You’ve heard the stories of people who’ve rushed into a burning building or displayed superhuman strength to save someone they love in a moment of disaster. What makes those miraculous feats possible is a certain type of necessity. A necessity brought about by the fear of an outcome that is worse than or would cause more suffering than the impossible thing to be done. The avoidance of pain or suffering is a powerful motivator, and can make you completely suspend the notion that you can’t do a thing. After my Rick’s Café cliff jump, I hit the water so hard that my watch – which I’d forgotten to remove – came off and began to float away from me as I sank beneath the surface. The watch was a treasured gift from a dear friend, and I was damned if I was going to let the Caribbean claim it. In that moment, I completely forgot to remember that I couldn’t swim well. My panic at being in a big body of water was replaced by the panic of potentially losing my watch, and before I could think, I’d swum my way up to retrieve it and over to the bottom of the cliff where I extracted my beloved watch and my beloved self from the water.
Sometimes a personal life tragedy and the long, slow pressure cooker of time is what you need to accomplish a seemingly impossible feat – like this guy who went from Homer Simpson to hotbody in one year after a breakup with his girlfriend. Tragedy and adversity often gives us a reason to fight and a willingness to win – or at least, persevere – despite impossible odds.
Cheerleaders / Role Models
Things don’t seem nearly as impossible when you’ve got a friend or few by your side cheering you on, believing in you, and pledging to be there for you if and when things get dicey. Sometimes a support group and a gentle nudge is what you need to get started on an impossible task. While I was standing on the edge of that sailboat in the middle of the Mediterranean, still debating if I could jump, I heard my friends cheering me on and smiling from the water. “C’mon, Kisha! You can do it! Jump!” Surely these smiling, strong-swimming people wouldn’t let me drown, I thought to myself. They weren’t even pointing and laughing at how obviously scared I was. Maybe they’re right. Maybe I can do this.
Fully commit (aka, ‘Sh*t or get off the pot’)
So you’ve found your motivation, but you’re still a little bit scared, you may even still be hemming and hawing about going through with this impossible feat. Nothing unusual about that. Fear doesn’t necessarily fade away simply because you’ve found a reason to face it. But if you’re still hesitating and reconsidering once you’ve started down the path toward the impossible, there’s a huge chance that you’re going to hurt yourself in the process. While motivation gives you the power to start an impossible thing, commitment is the thing within that says there is no stopping, no turning back, no giving in once you’ve started. Or, if you’ve decided to ‘get off the pot’, commitment prevents you from regretting that decision and continuing to beat yourself up about it.
Visualize the Desired Outcome
What’s the worst that could happen? Instead of letting that be just a rhetorical question, allow yourself to imagine the worst possible outcome – failure, embarrassment, physical pain, financial loss. Sit with that image for a while, try to feel the emotions attached to that outcome. Now, imagine the most desirable result. How would that feel? What would that look like? Spend more time filling out that image in your mind. See yourself swimming and playing with your friends in the water. See yourself not drowning, making it back to the boat and enjoying soggy chips with your friends as you sail off into the sunset, still laughing. Imagine yourself 1, 5, 10 years from now telling your kids the story of that one time when you swam in the Mediterranean despite the fact that you were scared to death. Then tell yourself that all the positive things you’ve just imagined can be real. All you have to do is….
Once It’s Done, Do It Again
You already know how my story ended, right? Of course you do. I eventually jumped off of the sailboat into the water on that sunny summer day in southern Spain. It was much, much colder and a lot less scary than I thought it would be. I splashed about in the sea, dodged several jellyfish undulating by, floated on my back (yay, saltwater!) and admired the cloudless sky above, and, when our little swimming pit stop was over, I climbed back onto the boat, proud of myself for having conquered my fear. We pulled up anchor, sailed off and headed back towards the shore. But just a few minutes later, my friends pleaded with the captain to stop the boat once more so we could take one final dip before heading back in. Once again, my intrepid friends dove fearlessly into the water. And, once again, I was struck with fear at the prospect of following them. Even though I had already jumped, here I was, moments later, just as scared as I was the first time. Even I was surprised at my lingering fear. Why was I still afraid? Hadn’t I already slayed this dragon? Doing the impossible once doesn’t necessarily make it any easier or less frightening to do the next time. My fear was still present and it was clouding my brain with irrational, but very convincing thoughts. What if I just got lucky the first time? What if it was just a fluke? What if I was about to let a false sense of confidence get me into trouble? Fear is not a rational thing. Which is why the only way to conquer it is to do what it says you can’t, and do it again and again and again. The fear may never fully disappear, but you will eventually learn to tune it out when it starts whispering its senseless nothings to you.
That day, I ignored my fear, and jumped. Twice. And once my friends and I were safely back on the shore and enjoying a few celebratory beers at the nearby beach, I confessed to one of them how scared I’d been because of my weak swimming ability.
“Whoa, that’s pretty awesome! I didn’t even know you couldn’t swim that well!” exclaimed my friend, before giving me an enthusiastic high-five. And at that moment, I realized a simple truth. Even if your attempt at the impossible is awkward, fumbled, ugly, causes you to shit your pants, lose money, lose friends, or get laughed at, going ahead and doing it anyway is infinitely better than the feeling of ‘what if’ or what might have been.
In short, doing the impossible – not necessarily being flawless at doing it – is the reward.
How have you overcome impossible feats in the past? Are there any big, impossible things you're afraid of that you need to go ahead and do anyway?