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How to Think About Possibility — And Why It Matters
The idea of possibility is so embedded into our thinking and language that we often forget that it's something to think about, but it turns out that a deeper understanding of possibility can radically change our lives for the better.
I've been thinking about possibilities for a good while now and have been slowly synthesizing a few different problems that have possibility as one of their root issues. It's taken me a while because I've been fluctuating between the general philosophical theme and the local applications, and weaving all of the ideas together has been a challenge. I'll take a shot at it today.
One of the things that makes decisions and evaluations so hard is that we're often comparing outcomes with different degrees of possibility. Aside from the fact that comparing possibilities is difficult due to the fact that there are unknown factors at play -- after all, if we knew all the factors, we would know the actual outcome -- there's the fact that there are different kinds of possibilities.
A Few Different Kinds of Possibilities
Bear with me on this one for a second as we take a look at this statement: "It's possible that I could run a marathon."
If you've ever seen me in person, you would guess (correctly) that I'm not the marathon-running type. It's not that I'm out of shape as much as I'm built more like a draft horse than a quarter horse. Give me something to pick up and move and I can do it all day; ask me to run 4 miles unencumbered and I'll balk.
Nonetheless, it's still possible that I could run a marathon. It's possible because, given time and training, I could alter my muscle type and neurophysical processes such that I could run a marathon.
However, though it's possible for me to run a marathon in that sense, I can't do it right now. Someone who has done that training and conditioning, though, has a different kind of possibility than what I have. She's a possible marathon-runner in two senses: she has both the latent potential to be a marathon-runner and the actual potential to run a marathon right now.
"Actual potential" is a weird phrase, I know, but I want to distinguish between the latent potential that I have and the type of potentiality that the marathan-runner has. At play are two different kinds of possibility.
Logical possibility is a third kind of possibility that comes up primarily in philosophical discourse, but I won't talk about it much in this post. I never thought I'd talk directly about modality at all, to be honest.
I don't want to bog this particular conversation down in terminology, as the rough concepts are useful enough. We intuitively understand that some things are logically possible, a subset of those things are possible in the sense that they're consistent with the way things are, and a smaller subset of those things are like the actual potential of the marathon runner.
Okay, so that's the general conceptual map we're working with. Let's move on to some concrete examples.
Possibilities and ToDo Lists
If you've been hanging around here for a while, you've heard my thing about trying to keep your ToDo lists to 3-5 things. This frustrates a lot of people because their first thought is always, "There's no way I could get everything done if I only did 3-5 things a day! There's too much to do!"
My counsel to stick to 3-5 projects has at its basis the difference between logical potential and actual potential. When we look at the 12+ hours that we have available to work in a day, it's logically possible that you can do those 22 things on your list. When you look at the actual way those hours stack up, though, it's not actually possible to complete that many things. Time and time again, people manage to complete 3-5 things on any given day.
If that was all I had to say, it probably wouldn't have needed the distinction between the different types of possibilities - that's just saying what I and many others have said. Where the distinction comes in is when we try to look at those hours in which it's logically possible for us to work and try to cram stuff in there. Hold that thought.
Another thread of this blog is the concept that we are more creative and productive at some times of the day rather than other times of the day and that it's far more effective to put the right type of work in the right type of time. At root, this concept is an instantiation of the different kinds of possibilities: when you're off peak, you're like me and marathon-running; when you're at your peak, you're like the marathon-runner. Sure, it's possible that you can do your creative heavy lifting after dinner when you're dragging, but is it possible in a way even remotely similar to when you sit down in the morning when you're at your peak?
If you take these two pillars - the "3-5 items" and the "do the right work at the right time" suggestions - and squish them together, you get "do 3-5 of the right things at the right time." It's not very sophisticated when you look at it that way, but the deeper framework is all about focusing on and harnessing actual potential rather than trying to make plans off of the other kinds of possibilities. It's better to make 3-5 meaningful, important, and grounded steps each day with less effort than to spend your days flitting from one thing to the next, hoping that it all fits together in the right way and stressing about all the things it was "possible" for you to do that you didn't do.
One last sidebar: once you start doing the right things at the right time, you'll find that you can do much more than you thought you could. In that sense, the 3-5 items suggestion is like a set of training wheels - once you have a good feel for riding, you can take 'em off. If you fall, put the training wheels on that fit your riding style.
You Like What You Like - And That's Powerful
Sometimes we try to convince ourselves to like things that we don't like or to not like the things we like. A lot of this comes from forgetting that our happiness counts, but underneath it is also the fact that our tastes, wants, and desires are far more malleable than a lot of us think.
The composite truth of the matter is that we should feel the tug in both directions: we like what we like but we can also change what we like. The former state just is, whereas the latter state is possible.
Yet the fact that it's possible doesn't mean that it's possible right now. Comparing your current needs and wants to the needs and wants of some idealized version of yourself can be crap for motivation to change to become the person you want to be. Not only is it crap, but it's misleading: you don't know what you'll want when you become that bigger and badder version of yourself, so the foundation of such a motivational schema has the stability and strength of a house of cards.
Why not focus on what you want and need in this moment and use them to build some momentum towards the changes you want to see? This can be challenging when the things you want are holding you back - for instance, if you enjoy eating but want to lose weight, you have to be careful about using food as a reward - but it's more challenging and less effective to deny yourself the things you enjoy until you have another substitute. Rather than bounce from the extremes of over-indulgence and complete abstinence, a gradual phase-out built on moderation is more effective and sustainable for most things.
The point here is that your rewards have to be things you currently want and like. Just as you can't use something you're not afraid of to scare yourself into changing, you can't use something you don't want to motivate yourself to change. To draw the conversation back on point, don't use what you possibly might like as a basis for comparison and motivation for change.
While we're at it, be careful about how much you compare who you actually are to who you might be - you're far more likely to be neither compassionate nor charitable to the former and over-idealistic for the latter. Few people imagine a flawed or less-than-perfect version of themselves in their dreams, yet we'll always see a flawed and less-than-perfect version of our actual selves.
Similarly, people actually use what they like. Rather than pay for the cheap version of something and resist using it because you don't like it, it's better to pay a little more to get the thing you actually want. This is especially true when it relates to things that are already resistance-laden. The last thing you want to do is fight through a creative project using tools that you hate when you could have spent a little bit more of your resources to get a tool that you'll love to use. The energy used to overcome resistance and frustration is better spent on creating something awesome - and you'll need your energy to fight creative doubt anyway.
So, yes, it's possible that you can suck it up and get by with the tool that you don't want, but be honest about the fact that you don't like it and don't criticize yourself using that idealized and "mature" version of yourself that can suck it up and like whatever she gets as a basis for comparison. If it's a tool that serves its purpose, so be it - but separate it serving its purpose and how you feel about the thing. And maybe use getting the thing you want as a goal to use the thing you don't want.
I'm not recommending over-spending, gluttony, or rampant consumerism here. I am recommending that you acknowledge what you want and need, and I'm also recommending using everything you actually have as a resource to become who you want to be in the world. Why make tentative steps on the shifting sands of possibility when you can make grounded steps on the stones of reality?
Between Zero and a Gazillion Customers
Fuzzy thinking about possibilities trips up entrepreneurs all the time, as the very risk that's inherently involved in any of our endeavors has its roots in possibilities. Every time we create a product, we're simultaneously scared that we'll create something that no one will want or buy it and secretly hoping that it'll take off and we'll have a gazillion buyers.
What's really going on is that we're emotionally evaluating two different merely possible states. It's possible that our new thing will flop, and it's possible that it'll take off. What's merely possible is exciting but not very useful - it's much more useful to have some sense of what's likely to happen so that we can set some realistic expectations.
Here's where some entrepreneurial acumen comes in. If you've never sold anything before, it's reasonable to expect that between 2-5% of the people in your audience will purchase what you're offering, assuming that you've created a good product and you're a decent marketer. If you've sold something before and are creating a product that your audience would want, you can gauge how well it'll sell off of how well your last product sold. It gets tricky if you change your price point or offering considerably, as you're then focusing on different segments of your audience, but the main point here is that neither zero sales nor a gazillion sales are likely if you do your homework.
Unfortunately, a lot of new entrepreneurs are unrealistic about these possibilities. If you have 50 people in your audience, selling 3 of your thing is something to be really proud of - there are established entrepreneurs that would love to have a conversion rate of 6%. Despite that fact, it's easy for us to beat ourselves up because of how much weight we placed on that mere possibility that we'll sell gazillions. Funny that we place our expectations on the over-optimistic possibility and thus make our judgements much harsher - but that's more an observation of how much more likely we are to negatively criticize ourselves than to give ourselves positive approval.
It's always possible that you'll get picked up by someone with a bigger audience and sell a gazillion copies like Naomi did with SEO School. It's also possible that you'll produce something that no one will buy. But with some homework and possibly some help, you can make a good estimate of what's actually possible.
To be an entrepreneur is to dance with possibilities. Like any other dance, there is a structure to it and you will make a lot of missteps while learning the steps - but to see the structure, you have to change the way you think about possibilities.
The Language We Live By
We often underplay the role of language in our lives. We think and understand the world through language. We express ourselves with language. In short, we live our lives through language.
That said, "can" and "could" are two words to pay close attention to in your thinking, as both words have possibility as a component of their meanings. Language plays a key role in how we think and express ourselves, but what many of us forget is that language also limits us and gets in the way. Anyone who's been in an argument with a loved one understands this truth: a simple question like "Could you help out around here?" can be twisted and distorted around the simple word "could" and all the emotions that word might be carrying.
Similarly, when you evaluate whether you can do something, be careful that you don't conflate latent potential with actual potential. If you have the latent potential but not the actual potential to do something, you'll need to do some intermediate work to develop the actual potential. If you have the actual potential, what's keeping that potential from becoming actuality?
Possibility and actuality are two fundamental, dyadic elements that permeate every facet of our existence in this world. They have teased our imagination and tortured our psyches for millennia and probably will for as long as we are living, thinking beings. They surface in the deepest of our thoughts about the divine to the smallest thoughts of trivialities of our days. They are like the air: we are so immersed in them that we don't realize they're there.
But they're there, nonetheless - and understanding them is possibly one of the best things we can actually do to flourish in this world.
It's the season for goal-setting, so take a look at those lists and resolutions and try to figure out which kinds of possibilities reveal themselves when you look at them a little closer. Look at those latent possibilities and see what intermittent steps you'll need to take to manifest them; they're the areas you'll need the most work, and shoring them up will help turn those lists and resolutions - which are expressions of possibilities - into the actual presents of this year and the pasts of the next.