Getting Past Impossible

Want to change the world for the better? The first step is believing it’s possible.

In his book Paradigms : The Business of Discovering the Future, author Joel A. Barker tells the story of a company that manufactured light bulbs in the first half of the 20thcentury. At the time, the glass that light bulbs were made of was clear, with the bright, glowing filament readily visible. Everyone knew that a frosted bulb would be easier on the eyes — but everyone also knew that developing a frosted bulb was “impossible.”

Because they believed it was impossible, the company had a little practical joke they would play on new employees: As their first assignment, each new hire was asked to design a frosted light bulb. This resulted in a lot of frustrated new employees, and everyone else in the company had a good laugh.

Until one day — to everyone’s shock and amazement — a new employee created a frosted lightbulb that worked just fine.

The point? No one else in the company created a frosted light bulb because after their first try, they were told it was impossible — and they believed it. And one thing is certain: You can’t make something happen if you believe it’s impossible.

Now here’s a question for you: Do you believe that the human race will ever put an end to hatred, violence, crime and war? Or do you believe it’s impossible?

We’re living through a time when plenty of people are behaving badly — treating others with disrespect, threatening others, breaking the law and putting our collective future at risk — and justifying their actions with certainty about twisted ideas that are being peddled by people who do not wish America well. It’s an easy time to lose faith in humanity and become pessimistic about the future. In fact, an informal survey will quickly demonstrate that most people don’t believe there’s any way to end hatred, violence, crime or war on this planet, even in the long run.

In fact, if I were to tell you that it was not only possible, but would happen within this century, how would you react? I’ve tried expressing this opinion, and even the most optimistic, peace-loving individuals I know scoff. (They may even lower their evaluation of my intelligence for suggesting such a thing.) However, there are some legitimate reasons to question the validity of that widespread pessimism. Here are a few reasons the future may be a whole lot brighter than it appears right now.

Drawing conclusions from casual observation

The primary reason so many people believe that ending war, violence or crime is impossible is that they look around them and see plenty of violence, crime and war. And, they know it’s been going on for a long time. They take this as evidence that such behavior is inevitable and unchangeable. (They also know that lots of other people agree with them, which confirms the idea that they must be right.)

The fact that people come to this conclusion is understandable. It’s human nature to draw conclusions on the basis of casual observation — just looking around us and seeing the most obvious things, the ones that draw our attention. However, casual observation can be very misleading. A case in point: For thousands of years, almost everyone on the planet believed that light objects fall more slowly than heavy objects. They believed this for two reasons:

— First, everyone else believed it. (As most of us know, challenging a widely accepted belief can be hazardous to your social standing — or worse!)

— Second, it was supported by the casual observation that a rock falls straight to the ground, while a feather floats slowly down.

In fact, people were drawing a “global” conclusion from this casual observation, when in fact it was a special case. The speed at which objects fall through air is drastically affected by factors that have nothing to do with their weight — like how much air resistance they encounter. It turns out that how much air resistance they encounter is determined by their shape, not their weight.

For example, how fast does a piece of paper fall? It depends on its shape! A flat piece of paper generates lots of air resistance and falls relatively slowly. But crumple it into a very tight ball and the same piece of paper will fall like a rock.

When you’re trying to determine the truth about something, casual observation can be very misleading. In can lead us to draw general conclusions that really only apply in special circumstances.

In light of that, let’s go beyond casual observation. Let’s carefully consider the evidence regarding human nature and hatred, war, crime and violence. It’s true that these behaviors can be found in all corners of the world, and they’ve been evident throughout human history. But does this mean that they’re a permanent fixture of human nature that can’t be eliminated, perhaps something ingrained in our genetic structure?

No. If they were, every person would exhibit these behaviors. Obviously this isn’t the case. Millions of people on this planet live their lives without hatred, without using violence against one another, without committing crimes and without going to war. In fact, many people have made their lives into profound statements that it’s possible to live without these behaviors. Some, like Ghandi or Mother Theresa, have become famous. But others live this way quietly. Some religions, such as the Society of Friends (better known as Quakers) have made this lifestyle their spiritual and philosophical principle.

Fine, you may say, but aren’t those people the exceptions?That’s one way to look at it, but that still proves my point. If a global statement about mankind is really true — for example, “everybody has to breathe to stay alive” — there are no exceptions. The world offers countless examples of people living without war, crime or violence. Concluding that these negative behaviors are preordained to be with us forever is actually the result of inadequate observation and faulty reasoning.

Behavior happens for a reason

The second reason you shouldn’t conclude that we’re stuck with hatred, war, crime and violence, is that it’s easy to find causes for these unwanted behaviors that have nothing to do with genetics or some fundamental characteristic of human nature. For example, most people resort to violence for easily demonstrable reasons, including:

  • feelings of powerlessness that drive them to do something drastic to regain a sense of power;
  • learned fears and prejudices that portray others as a grave threat;
  • believing it’s the only way to respond to unfair treatment;
  • repressed emotions that finally explode;
  • repeating abusive behavior that they were subjected to;
  • being taught that violence is acceptable (or even expected) because of their gender;

and so on. People who have not been subjected to these experiences (or similar ones not listed here) don’t behave violently. People who have been taught to respect each other and taught that they can get their needs met without abusing others don’t commit crimes.

In short, the evidence is overwhelming: Hatred, war, crime and violence are not ingrained, “natural expressions of human nature.” They are the exception.

So, if they are the exception, why have they persisted, in sometimes epidemic proportions? Because until recently, we haven’t understood their causes. (If you showed this list of factors that can lead to violence to an intelligent person living even a hundred years ago, they most likely would have thought you were crazy.)

If you don’t understand the cause of a problem, you have no way to take effective action to prevent it from occurring. The problem may then appear over and over again, and seem to be insoluble. People casually observing this may conclude that it’s an inescapable reality of human nature.

Getting past impossible

So, suppose all those people who believe that an end to hatred, war, crime and violence is impossible are actually wrong. Does it really matter?

In a word, yes. The problem is — as the people at the light bulb company demonstrated — as long as we believe that solving these problems is impossible, we can’t solve them. We lose our ability to be part of the solution. And right now, our civilization is threatened by people possessing weapons of mass destruction. We need to solve these problems. Fortunately, we’re at a turning point in human history. Right now, for the first time ever, we understand enough about the causes of human behavior that it’s within our ability to finally end hatred, war, crime and violence.

So what’s stopping us? The biggest obstacle is the simplest one: We have to believe it’s possible.We can no longer afford to accept — without question — the pessimistic belief that we’re trapped in an endless cycle of hatred, violence, crime and war. Left unchanged, this belief will effectively prevent us from saving our own lives.

So, think it over. Look at the good people in the world around you. Look at the good that you do every day. Then, think about the reasons all of us sometimes behave in ways that hurt others. The reasons aren’t mysterious, and they aren’t that hard to see once you start looking for them. And they can be eliminated over time, slowly but surely.

If you can get past “impossible,” you can become part of the solution to all of these problems. If you can see our situation for what it is — problematic, but with real solutions that, for the first time in history, are within our ability to implement — you’ll be taking the first crucial step toward a future world in which violence, crime and war are just distant memories. It’s a journey we all desperately need to take.