language holding you back

Our Shared Language Problem

I think we have a language problem.

I hear it all the time. Someone’s talking about starting a business, finding the perfect partner, or learning a technical skill. Then they say something like, “But that’s impossible.” Alas.

Those things are genuinely hard to do. They take time. The path to success is rife with failure and potential humiliation. But they’re certainly not impossible.

Consider some remote possibilities: becoming a professional athlete, a billionaire, or a CEO of a Fortune 500 company. You’d need incredible luck and skill to make any of those things happen, but again – not impossible.

Though becoming the next Bezos is vanishingly unlikely, starting a successful business is quite doable. 

Your first business probably won’t be a success, but if you learn from your failures and keep starting businesses, you’ll likely be successful in a future venture. Entrepreneurial success is unlikely in the short-term but not in the long-term.

Still, we label unlikely or challenging things “impossible.”

We might not say “impossible” explicitly. Instead, we’ll say “nobody does that” or “I can’t.”

This shorthand isn’t doing us any favors.

Sometimes, what we’re saying is that we don’t want to invest the time. That’s fine; life is one giant opportunity cost, and we should spend time on things we value. 

Most of the time, though, our language problem is holding us back. 

Definition time

Before we go further, I think we need to define some of these words:

  • Easy – These require little skill or time investment to do well. The biggest challenge with easy tasks is getting out of your own way.
  • Difficult – Require time and effort to learn or master, but long-term success is mostly in your control. People who aren’t blessed with exceptional intelligence, wealth, or talent have managed to figure out and succeed at difficult things.
  • Unlikely – Uncertain domains in which excellence is only part of the equation; things outside your control (e.g., luck, timing, etc.), play a larger role.
  • Impossible – Things the human race hasn’t figured out yet. Everything in this category is there temporarily until a breakthrough extends the boundaries.

Given these definitions, are you seeing any issues with the way we describe our lives?

When we suggest to ourselves and others that difficult, unlikely, and impossible things happen with the same (zero or near-zero) frequency, we’re limiting ourselves. As a result, we’ll live narrower, more fearful lives.

You could argue this is a semantic debate with little practical impact. I strongly disagree.

The words we use to describe the likelihood of future events will determine our lives’ direction and quality.

Why words matter

The mindset with which we enter any endeavor influences our likelihood of success. I don’t mean this in a woo-woo The Secret kind of way.

If you believe your nontraditional career path or chances in the dating pool are a moon shot, you’ll be far more likely to abandon them when things get tough. If you believe they’re bets with a high probability of long-term payoff, you’ll be willing to stick it out.

The probabilities you assign to success in future endeavors also determine how likely you are to pursue them in the first place. 

Almost nobody is willing to risk anything of value on an impossible project. If you believe that entrepreneurial success is impossible, you’ll keep your startup idea to yourself while you grind away at your office job. 

Stepping outside the box won’t just feel scary – it’ll feel futile, pointless, and embarrassing.

And it’s not just ourselves we’re influencing. Our words are contagious – they spread to our friends and loved ones. 

If we suggest something is impossible, our friends remember that. The next time we ask for advice, they’ll steer us according to the boundaries we’ve set.

Perhaps more importantly, our words impact their lives. How many times have you offered direction to a friend considering a new job or debating a breakup? 

Your friends probably don’t listen as often as you’d like, but I bet there are a few things you’ve convinced them to do (or not do) based solely on your advice.

That’s why people say you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with. If you plow into difficult domains, your friends will realize they’re not impossible and will push their boundaries.

On the other hand, if you believe difficult things are impossible, the contagion may spread to the entire group.

A reminder worth keeping

An uncommon life requires frequent, careful parsing of real-world probabilities.

Take, for example, the oft-cited statistic that 9 in 10 restaurants fail. If we agree with this statistic (I have no idea where it’s from), it seems success for any individual new restaurant is unlikely. 

Still, most of us look at that statistic and say, “restaurants are bad businesses to start.” We believe starting a successful restaurant is impossible, though the statistic tells us that isn’t true – 1 in 10 restaurants succeeds.

And what if you’ve worked in restaurants your whole life, learning customer preferences and management strategies inside and out? What about a serial restauranteur – are the odds better if this is your third try?

When you dissect even the most damning statistic, the odds of success are usually better than you’d think. If the odds of success are low, they’re still not zero. That’s worth remembering.

But it’s tough to keep this in mind. Our brains like binaries – black and white, go or no-go, easy or impossible.

The real spectrum is far more nuanced.

Because this stuff is hard to keep straight and our brains are unconscionably lazy, we could all use a reminder of what these words mean in practice. 

To that end, I’ve compiled a list of things people commonly call “impossible.” It turns out most of what we call impossible is merely difficult.

I find this table a happy reminder of how little is actually impossible. Maybe you’ll find it useful, too.

If you’d like a PDF version, submit your email here, and I’ll send it over.

A proposed language chart

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