They called it “literally impossible” – an unachievable ambition for any human to outrun the 4-minute mile. If there was any hope in even attempting such a feat, conditions would have to be absolutely perfect: the track hard and dry, the temperature exactly 20 degrees Celsius; a windless day with tens of thousands of spectators to cheer you over the line. But it’s impossible, don’t forget, so why would you even try?
On a wet and windy day in Oxford, 6 May 1954, with only 3000 people in the crowd, Roger Bannister redefined possible. He smashed through the 4-minute barrier with a time of 3:59.4 and changed history forever. And yet, just 46 days later, that time was beaten again by Australian rival, John Landy. In fact, over the next five years, 22 more athletes achieved the sub-four feat, and today thousands of people have shattered the 4-minute mile…all because they have known it to be possible.
This leaves us asking, what other barriers need breaking in our day? What are the so-called impossibilities that are just waiting for someone to debunk, the myths that have yet to be busted? The truth is, they are everywhere. Unfortunately, we tend to see them when it’s too late, when the dust of some competitor’s innovation is fresh in our eyes and we’re scrambling to apply the “should have done” to our ‘yesterday’ business practices.
Nearly every day in our industry, we stand at a crossroads. On one side is ‘business as usual’ – predictable, quantifiable and horribly safe. On the other side, we are offered the opportunity to risk and to fail, to experiment and to break the mould, with the potential to forever change the game and truly impact the future.
The world today is breaking things fast and unveiling innovation – but to move at the pace of change, we will have to break a part of ourselves and start to question the possibility or impossibility of things: do the limitations really exist, or are they simply a symptom of our mindset?
We are what we think
We tend to believe what we want to believe. This is not just a statement of popular lore, but an anatomical fact. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt calls it the process of “motivated reasoning“: the notion that cold, hard facts are not enough to sway behaviour – we are more deeply motivated by the unique emotional and psychological realities ruling our unconscious mind.
Even if there’s a single needle of pseudo-evidence to back our bias within the haystack of overwhelming counter-proof, we’ll use that one small needle to make our case. Says acclaimed neuroscientist Leonard Mlodinow on the matter, “As it turns out, the brain is a decent scientist but an absolutely outstanding lawyer.”
So, if we believe we are going to fail, most probably we will. That’s what Mlodinow has found throughout years of researching the effects of habitually negative thinking and depression on the brain. When these neural pathways have become highways for toxic chemical reactions to flow, people have historically (and presently) achieved less financial stability, less relationship success, less talent and “tend to be moderately depressed, suffer from low self-esteem, or both” over their lifetime.
Compared to individuals who are optimistic and positive to overcome their perceived threats, evidence-based research argues they hone their innate potential, achieve wildly more success, and maintain better health. Steve Jobs attributed his success to the latter: “before you can do great things, you have to believe you can.”
Roger Bannister could never have broken the world record by sheer physicality; his motivated reasoning needed to unlock the outcome. First, he had to believe that it was possible and, furthermore, that he could do it.
Humans are destined to evolve
There is an ongoing competition for cortical real estate in the brain, explains acclaimed neuroscientist Norman Doidge. What you choose to focus on will gain the neural ‘squatter’s rights’ and architect your outcomes in life. The more you emphasise a certain thought or habit, the stronger its physical neurological pavement is solidified into your mental psyche.
But thanks to groundbreaking discoveries in neuroplasticity over the last few decades, we know that our physiology and therefore, our behaviour, can change. Neuroscientist Nicole Gravagna explains it this way: “When you work out a muscle, it grows stronger. If you stop exercising a muscle, it begins to atrophy. The brain is not a muscle, but when you exercise it, it grows stronger in its own way. Similarly, when you stop using it, it atrophies in its own way. Basically, challenging your brain makes you smarter. Whatever you do on a regular basis affects the way your brain works.”
Change is hard, however. To carve out fresh, healthy pathways takes discipline and time. It has to be a conscious choice that each individual person makes (and no disruptive technology can make for you).
Nurturing change in the attention economy
Today’s porous world of digital connectedness means that our minds are being constantly bombarded by information, which is one of the greatest gifts and curses that businesses have. On one hand, we have all this information at our disposal, and on the other, the amount of data can be so enormous that it is distracting. Some is music; the rest is noise.
Of course, if we want to use this for good and become more courageous and innovative in our thinking, we have to rethink the way that organisations can encourage making a culture of it. Thought leader and author Carol Sanford would argue that we unlock the tremendous capacity of human potential by curating ‘regenerative businesses‘. Just as living systems are designed as fluid and interdependent parts of the whole, business cultures will have deeper impact over time if their business strategy is tied to something bigger than the bottom line.
A hierarchical, piecemeal approach to structuring business disables its people from seeing the bigger picture. But business cultures that are collaborative, fluid and integrated – filled with opportunities for people to manifest their own potential – create safe, inspired spaces where creative combustions inevitably occur and impossibilities unfold.
As Gravagna emphasises: “Getting smarter sounds like a great outcome. Who doesn’t want to be smarter? The brain exercise market is now worth over $1B in the US alone. That means that a lot of people are spending a lot of money to get smarter, but will they achieve their goals? That’s the real question.”
If we consider the culture/mindset of an organisation, a city or a nation, as the collective manifestation of the culture/mindset of its people, how do we harness the power of neuroplasticity in individuals’ brains to transform collective beliefs? How do we create the superhighways of mindsets in a networked organisation/city/nation that allow dreams to become reality? How do we challenge the preconceived notions of impossibility at an organisational, citywide or national level to bring highly desirable and impactful step changes?
Is achieving a carbon-positive future the equivalent of breaking the 4-minute mile in today’s world? A directive that all clothes must be manufactured from recycled materials in 10 years’ time? Reversing climate change? While such scenarios can seem wildly impossible, how gratifying – and reassuring – to know that it’s human nature, and indeed our very own brains, where the secret to breaking down these limitations lies.