Achieving The Impossible


“Achieving The Impossible” sounds like a contradiction in terms, doesn’t it. The word that causes us the issues is the word “impossible”. It’s an interesting word. In my humble opinion, the word “impossible” is one of the most commonly misused words in the English language. When we say “impossible”, we normally mean something different. The word impossible has a bedfellow; the word “can’t”.  When we say “can’t” we don’t mean “can’t”, we mean something else.

Let me give you an example. Imagine the scene… it is Sunday morning in the Hartley household. My eldest daughter wanders into the kitchen and says “Daddy, this maths homework is impossible”. “Oh”, I said, “that’s good”. “Why is that good?”, she asked. “Well”, I replied, “whistling was impossible, but you managed that. Clicking your fingers was impossible too. So was swimming without armbands and I definitely remember you telling me that riding your bike without stabilisers was impossible. But, you can do all of those. So, if this maths homework is also impossible, I reckon you’ll be able to do it”. And, of course, she did.

In 1930 French entomologist, August Magnan, noted that it was ‘impossible’ for bumble bees to fly. Obviously no-one told the bees.

When we say “impossible”, we might mean “it’s very difficult” or “I don’t know how to” or “I don’t believe that I can”. It’s similar when we say the word “can’t”. Normally, “can’t” actually means “I don’t want to” or “I’m not willing to do what it takes”.

There are some people that don’t tend to use the words impossible or can’t. These are the people that achieve incredible things, they change the course of history and make an indelible mark on the world. These people take on the challenges that most people will tell you are “impossible”.   

During the last few years I’ve become curious to know how people take on massive challenges. How do people succeed in challenges that are daunting and seemingly impossible? Interestingly, those who succeed tend to have a different perception of what constitutes ‘impossible’. The fact is, ‘impossible’ is an opinion; it is not absolute. One thing that I have noticed, is that those who achieve extraordinary things often start out with some pretty big ideas. They are dreamers!

Let’s consider a few examples…

Walt Disney was the man who dreamed of building an entire fairy-tale world, with an enormous princess castle, in the middle of a swap just outside of Orlando. Great idea! Can you imagine the conversation he had with his bank manager when he asked for a loan? Did you know that Walt Disney was rejected 302 times before he finally secured the finance for Disneyland?

What about Thomas Edison? He dreamed of using electricity to light up our homes. Did you know that it took him approximately 10,000 attempts to create a commercially viable light bulb? After more than 9000 failed attempts, I wonder if anyone said, “Maybe you should give up on this daft light-bulb-thingy of yours, it’s obviously not possible”.

Richard Branson dreams of making commercial space flight a reality. Originally, Branson predicted that the first paying customers would be in orbit in 2007. Almost 10 years, and many prototypes later, he has predicted that they will finally take-off this year. All I would say is… watch this space (pun definitely intended)!

All of these people had big dreams.

Dr Martin Luther King was the pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama; the town where Rosa Parks was famously arrested because she wouldn’t give up her seat for a white man. Martin Luther King started campaigning for civil rights locally and regionally. He didn’t set out to be a leader, but people followed… because this man had a dream!

It’s no surprise that those who achieve incredible things have a dream.

But what you don’t have a dream? What if you don’t have big ideas, grand visions or huge hairy audacious goals?

I believe that we all have dreams. Some people are almost unaware of them. Their dreams are fleeting; they appear and disappear in almost the same instant. Why is this? It’s because some people snub out these tiny sparks of inspiration before they have a chance of igniting.

What happens in your mind when you have a wildly ambitious idea? Do you think, “That’s ridiculous, I couldn’t possibly do that?”… or… “I wouldn’t even know where to begin”… or… “I’m not the kind of person who does extraordinary things, I’m not special”. Maybe you think it would be irresponsible or selfish to follow your dreams. The truth is, these conversations kills most people’s dreams and ideas at the point of inception.

But some people don’t kill the dream. Instead they entertain it for a while. They engage with it, play around with it, start to imagine embarking upon it and get excited by it. I believe that it is these moments that set the world-beaters apart from the rest. Very simply, they keep their dreams alive where others kill them.

Dreams are not sensible!

Some people opt for SMART thinking and set SMARTER goals. I’ve read lots of books and listened to lots of gurus who advocate setting SMARTER goals. There are lots of acronyms. One of the more popular, says that we should set goals that are Specific, Measureable, Achievable, Realistic, Time-Bound, Evaluate(able) and Relevant.  

When I look at those, I ask myself a question. Did Walt Disney set SMARTER goals? Could we describe building a fairy-tale palace in the middle of a swamp as ‘Realistic’ ‘Attainable’ or ‘Relevant’? What about commercial space-flight or equal rights for black Americans? Let’s be honest, those are not SMARTER goals. A few years ago I began training for a rather daft 40 day endurance event around the UK. It struck me that I wasn’t setting SMARTER goals at all.

My goals were Daft, Unrealistic, Mental, Bonkers, Exciting and Ridiculous. These were DUMBER goals!

So, how do we go about setting DUMBER goals?

Firstly, let’s not squash our dreams.

Then, let’s realise that many people with grand visions didn’t leap into it in one go. Even big dreams can start small. Alan Hinkes climbed all 14 of the world’s 8000 meter peaks. He didn’t even consider all 14 until he’d done between 8 of them.

Interestingly Richard Branson was asked how he dreamed of the Virgin Galactic project. He said…

“At the time we put out the Sex Pistols, people thought we were taking a giant risk. Then the train network. Each of these was a building block that gave me the confidence to dream even bigger. When I started Virgin Atlantic, I knew nothing about running airlines. I just felt somebody should be able to do it better than British Airways. By then I’d learned what a company is. A company is, you go and find the best people. We got the chief technical officer from British Caledonian, so we knew it was going to be safe, then we got a lot of creative people who weren’t from the airline world to go and shake up the business. Starting a spaceship company is not that dissimilar.”


So, it seems that big dreams are sometimes created…

One step at a time… One choice at a time… One question at a time.

Do we choose to entertain the idea?

Do we choose to give it a try?

Do we ask ourselves “How could I?”


Sometimes we need to simply push ourselves as far as we can go!

Although it was his dream, Olympic swimmer Chris Cook, understood that his job was not to become an Olympic gold medallist. His job was to swim two lengths of the pool AS FAST AS HE COULD! In doing so, he became an Olympic finalist, a double Commonwealth Champion & record holder and the seventh fastest in history.

So, how does that apply to you? If the swimmer’s job is to swim as fast as possible, perhaps there is a direct equivalent in your world. Let’s take sales as an example. Maybe the job is to sell as many widgets as possible? Initially, you might think that selling ‘as many as you can’ is a soft target. It may sound like we’re ditching our ‘impossible’ target in favour of something else. Interestingly, the challenge of selling ‘as many as you possibly can’ is the hardest target of all. It means that if you double, treble or quadruple your target, we’d ask, “Could you have sold another one?”. Is there anything else that you could have done? It means that if you’ve doubled your monthly target three weeks into the month, you don’t cruise the last week of the month. It means that whether you’re top of the leader-board or bottom, the job is simply to keep selling as many as possible.  

This mind-set has helped both athletes and sales people to actually surpass their ‘impossible’ target.

I currently work with an elite professional cricket team. I recently went out onto the golf course with one of our opening batsman to do some work on extending his ability to focus for long periods. I challenged him to sink as many two foot putts as he possibly could without missing. “How many is that?”, he asked. “As many as you possibly can”, I replied. “Is that 50, or 100?”, he asked. “No, it’s as many as you possibly can”. So he started, putting one at a time. When he reached about 70 he asked me how many a tour pro golfer would score. I said, “I’ll tell you when you finish”. The batsman kept putting, past 100, past 150, past 200 and eventually finished on 212 consecutive two foot putts. “So, how many do pro golfers get?”, he asked. “The highest score I’ve seen is 123”, I replied. If I had told him that at the start, how many do you think he would have scored?   

So, what would happen if we changed the conversation between our ears? Instead of saying, “There’s no way…”, what if we asked, “How could we…?”. What would happen if we changed the way we looked at the challenge? I’ve watched many people attempting to take on challenges. Often the hardest part is simply getting started. If you were standing at the foot of the mountain looking up at the peak, you might think, “Gulp. That’s a huge mountain”. However, if you look at the footpath in front of you, you might think “That seems easy enough”.

“Continuous effort, not strength or intelligence, is the key to unlocking your potential”, Winston Churchill.

A friend of mine talks of ‘The Law Of Persistence”. This law states that if you continually take strides in the direction that you want to go, there is only one possible outcome. Eventually, you will get there.

The truth is, we’re often capable of far more than we believe. Instead of aiming for a ‘realistic’ target, what would happen if you aimed to do as much as you could? What would happen if you set some DUMBER goals, rather than SMARTER ones? What would you be capable of?

I published a book in April, called “Could I Do That?”, which explains how people take on and achieve “impossible” challenges. On the very last page, it says this…

SMARTER goals give us ways to achieve our dreams

DUMBER goals give us dreams worth achieving


To find out how other people take on seemingly impossible challenges, read ‘Could I Do That?’.