Doing the Impossible

"where ignorance is bliss, 'Tis folly to be wise" Thomas Gray

Kathy gets the week rolling with The Clueless Manifesto, a post extolling the virtues of approaching problems with a beginner's mind and of not accepting the conventional wisdom of what's not possible. I agree wholeheartedly with the manifesto, and have made career-limiting moves based on that conviction (it took me a while to learn that certain executives don't like employees to solve problems that the boss's consultant cronies couldn't). Then again, my greatest achievements - most notably convincing my wife to marry me - have come from this very mindset.

In the Clueless Manifesto, Kathy recalls the story of Roger Bannister, the first person to break the 4 minute barrier in the mile. Everyone knows the story at a superficial level: Before Bannister clocked his 3:59 time in 1954, many people believed that it was physically impossible for a human being to run that fast. Reading this biography, you see that Sports Illustrated proclaimed "The perfect runner, the perfect race", yet a month later his record was broken by John Landy, who Bannister beat in that year's British Empire Games in a race where they both broke the four minute mark. But the story gets better: Because he was a full-time medical student, Bannister could only practice forty-five minutes a day! But he believed in himself more than he believed in the "experts".

Stuff like this happens all the time. Recently Steve Pavlina decided to adopt a polyphasic sleep pattern, in which he naps for ~20 minutes six times in every 24 hours, for a net sleep time of 3 hours per day. It's a good thing he didn't read this article saying it was impossible! The article is almost prototypical of something written by a self-annointed authoritarian nay-sayer:
Whoever claims to be on a perpetual polyphasic schedule must be either suffering from a sleep disorder, or be a liar, a mutant, or a person with a mulishly stubborn iron-will that lets him plod through the daily torture of sleep deprivation.
Steve decided that mutant was the only option that might apply to him, but I e-mailed him and told him that he wasn't a mutant; he was the Roger Bannister of polyphasic sleep. I guess SI was right when they labeled his 3:59.4 "A Feat That Will Never Be Forgotten".

Doing the impossible isn't limited to the realms of physical and mental stamina. Anyone who has invested money in equity markets has heard that it is impossible to spot the exact tops and bottoms of bull and bear markets. In fact, it's become sort of a Holy Grail of investing. Many have quested, but none have succeeded, or so I thought. Then I read this interview (in two parts) of Paul Desmond by Barry Ritholtz. Desmond did exhaustive research of market tops and bottoms since 1900, and thinks the data shows clear indicators of both tops and bottoms. His arguments are quite persuasive.
[Note: do not read this directly after eating if you have a weak constitution. He's predicting a rough 2006, bottoming out sometime in September-October. Again, his arguments are very persuasive.]

In the bustle of everyday life, the noise from "experts" can shackle us without our even noticing. What problem do you currently face that could benefit from the Clueless perspective? In what areas can you be your own Roger Bannister or Paul Desmond?

posted by Mike at 12:04 PM


Blogger Unknown said...

Cool find! And don't forget Dick Fosbury.

The old man used to tell us he figured out plane crashes by staying away from anyone who wanted to "brief your team" when he first arrived on-scene. Something like "insight comes from pretending ignorance." Very zen.

Hey, have you read Ten Faces of Innovation? Very good stuff on this kind of bricolage-minded approach and how to end-run the inevitable "devil's advocates"

12:14 PM  
Blogger Mike said...

I should have remembered Fosbury; he just didn't show up in unrelated posts and e-mails. Your old man sounds like a very shrewd character.

Haven't read Ten Faces, but I've read Kelley's previous book. What's the "new news" of this one, besides examples?

12:23 PM  
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