How do you respond when told something is impossible?

From Ryan Holiday’s new book Conspiracy:

It is always revealing to see how a person responds to those situations where he’s told: “There’s nothing you can do about it. This is the way of the world.” Peter Thiel’s friend, the mathematician and economist Eric Weinstein, has a category of individual he defines as a “high-agency person.” How do you respond when told something is impossible? Is that the end of the conversation or the start of one? What’s the reaction to being told you can’t—that no one can? One type accepts it, wallows in it even. The other questions it, fights it, rejects it.

As an engineer, my first response is always to deconstruct the problem. Empathy is important too. Some questions I like to ask:

  • Why does this person believe it is impossible?
  • What do they know that I don’t or vice versa?
  • What are the limiting factors of the outcome that is supposedly impossible?
  • What are the actual dynamics of the system that is supposedly impossible to change?
  • How do the dynamics of the system differ at other timescales? (Over months, decades, lifetimes…)
  • What does everyone believe about the system? What if the opposite is true?

2 thoughts on “How do you respond when told something is impossible?

  1. Gage

    Normally I have gotten this in a professional context when trying to get something done. Step one, valid the other person’s feeling of hopelessness. “Oh man. I see what you mean that really sucks”. This let’s you into their world as a party on their side. Then after a few moments of shared despair, and really experiencing that feeling with them is important, you can then make a turn and say “well… If that weren’t true, what are some of the next steps we would take after tackling this” or “if you had all the time and resources in the world how would you approach this”. This allows room for creative thinking by allowing them to hold on to that world view of impossiblity and continue problem solving. Finally they will likely find the answer themselves and champion that idea on their own without further guidance. Or at least you will get some good information to help you see the problem in more full view

    Reply
    1. Ben Sima Post author

      Finally they will likely find the answer themselves and champion that idea on their own without further guidance.

      Ah, the Socratic Method 🙂 I use this every chance I get. It also reveals how patient a person is. If they get frustrated and end the conversation after being asked these questions, well, that tells me alot.

      Reply

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