Impossible, unlikely or difficult?
Difficult tasks have a road map. With effort, we can get from here to there. It might surprise you to realize that difficult is easy once you have the resources and commitment. Paving a road is difficult, so is customer service and fixing software bugs.
But impossible and unlikely are where we get hung up.
On Tuesday, Apple launched a thousand dollar phone. The engineers and designers had unlimited time (ten years since the first one), unlimited resources, unlimited market power. It's possible that there hasn't been that much unlimited in one place in our entire lives. And, yet, all they could build was an animated emoji machine. A slightly better phone. A series of difficult tasks, mostly achieved.
It's not that another breakthrough is impossible. It's not that we've explored all the edges of human connectivity, of alternative currencies, of education, of personal transformation or generosity. It's not that we've already performed all the leaps in safety, in technology, in identity. Or even productivity. Of course not. It's not impossible to leap again with the magic computer we all have in our pocket.
What tripped up Apple, as it trips up many successful organizations or careers, is that the next leap isn't impossible… it's merely unlikely. It was unlikely that the original iPhone would have actually been transformative, but Steve took a huge leap and got lucky on the other side. It could easily have gone sideways. He tried for something that was unlikely to work, but it did.
That same sort of leap, the one into the unlikely, is available to all of us, at different scales. It's unlikely that our next brave novel, our next breakthrough speech, our next scary but generous project will succeed. Unlikely but worth it.
Unlikely never feels quite the same as difficult, and sometimes it appears impossible. It's neither. It's something risky, and something without a map or a guarantee. We hesitate to do it precisely because it might not work, precisely because it's more than difficult.
Working on an unlikely project takes guts and hubris. It requires us to have the insight to distinguish it from the impossible, and the desire to not merely do the difficult.
What percentage of your time are you spending on the unlikely?