Below are three out of countless examples throughout human history which illustrate the changing nature of what we believe to be possible at a given period in time:
- Before Roger Bannister became the first human in 1954 to break the four-minute barrier in a mile, it was widely believed that no human would ever run a mile at under four minutes. It was considered to be physically impossible for humans to run at that speed. Bannister had run in the 1952 Helsinki Olympics and finished fourth in the 1,500 meters (slightly shorter than a mile.) This below-par performance was a big disappointment for Bannister, and it drove him to develop his own training regimen of short, intense workout sessions to enable him to break the four minute mark.
On May 6, 1954, in Oxford, England, Bannister ran the mile in 3 minutes, 59.4 seconds. Following this groundbreaking feat, however, Bannister held the distinction of being the only human with below-four-minute-mile for less than seven weeks. John Landy finished the mile in 3:58.0 on June 21, 1954, and another thirty-six people ran the mile in under four minutes by 1956. In the following nine years, over two hundred additional people did the same. What happened? A clear psychological barrier had been transgressed. This was no longer considered impossible. Now it was brought inside the mental borders of what is considered doable.
The current world record in a mile, set in 1999 by Hicham El Guerrouj, stands at 3:43.13. What had been believed to be humanly impossible only 46 years prior, which in the cosmic perspective is a blink of an eye, had now been reduced by seventeen seconds, which is a gigantic span in competitive running at this distance. A limit obviously exists, but where is it?
- After Orville and Wilbur Wright had begun flying their rudimentary airplanes at the beginning of the twentieth century, not only many people were afraid of going on a plane in person, but many also resisted the idea on philosophic principles – as something that we humans were not meant to do. Their reasoning was that we are terrestrial creatures and as such should stay on the ground: birds belong in the sky, and humans belong on earth. Only 100 years later, this type of thinking is clearly considered out-of-date.
- Readers over the age of fifty might marvel at the technological innovations of wearable computers, humanlike robots, and enhanced e-books, but for people younger than twenty, this equipment is the only experience they have known. The smartphone that fits in your hand has more computing power than the spacecraft Apollo 11, which landed on the moon in July 1969 for the first manned moonwalk of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. That was the pinnacle of human ingenuity at the time; this you can now carry in your pocket. Today’s children are born into this reality, and for them this is normal. So it is with any other novel information: at a certain point the extraordinary becomes routine, and then obsolete.
Ask yourself: What kind of limitations do I hold in my own mind?
What do I presuppose from the start that I will not be able to do?
If we set out to do something we believe is impossible, we will have little likelihood of accomplishing this task. On the other hand, if we believe something is attainable by us, in that very realization lie the seeds of the successful outcome. The mathematical term for this is the “existence theorem” – chances of finding a solution to a problem are greatly increased by the knowledge that a solution exists.
Shifts of consciousness
Let us play a little mind game. Let’s travel back in time to England in the year 1545. Let’s make you a successful and important person – you are a member of the court of King Henry VIII – you are well-respected and well-informed, and people seek your opinion on worldly matters.
One day a courier arrives at court with the news that a scientist named Nicolaus Copernicus claims that the earth is not at the center of the world but somehow spins around the sun. Ridiculous, you think. Who will believe this? In fact, some of your peers say, Hang the heretic, or better yet torture him until he recants. And you and your peers at this time are not ignorant people, you are just convinced that this idea is nonsense. Who can blame you?
Consider the shift in consciousness that this bizarre information required. The brightest minds on earth had thought that all the planets and stars revolved around us. Day was day, and night was night. The stars were above in the heavens, and the sun rose in the east and set in the west, and the moon came on after darkness, and there was order in the world.
We have only traveled less than 500 years back. Let’s jump back 500,000 years: what do we see? Rough life, harsh conditions. Now let’s jump forward the same amount of years. This entire expanse and more is your mental canvas, the evolutionary information contained in your genes.
It took 13.8 billion years for the universe to evolve from the moment of the big bang to the present moment of you reading this sentence. But the potential – the promise and the premise – of this moment existed right there at the moment of the big bang. Between the reality of the big bang and the reality of you reading this article there are 13.8 billion years of chemical, physical, and biological processes; of planetary alignments; of temperature adjustments; and ongoing shifts of consciousness.
The future is not the past. Time does not stop, nor does “Life”, the process of mutation, adaptation, transformation, and renewal. This innate flexibility and mutability is at the source of you and me, and the very essence of existence. Unfortunately, some people confuse the limits of their vision for the limits of the world.
Here’s the true mental challenge: can you have a view of yourself which incorporates your entire span of existence? Can you step back and have a vision of your life which includes what you have been, what you are today, and also all the promise of your future?
Remember what you represent, the limitless potential of existence.
The energy and intelligence animating the cosmos inform every cell in your body.
About the Author:
Guy is President of Lifespan Seminar and Vice President of Asia Pacific Association of Psychology. He serves as the Secretary General of the Chamber of Chartered Behavioral Scientists and is an Esteemed Council Member of the International Council of Professional Therapists. Guy teaches and conducts workshops in the US, Europe, and Asia. Follow him on Twitter @LifespanSeminar