Harvey MacKay: 'Impossible' is just a frame of mind

A college student arrived a few minutes late for his final exam in mathematics. The room was quiet, with everyone working hard, and the professor silently handed him the test. It consisted of five math problems on the first page and two on the second. The student sat down and began to work. He solved the first five problems in half the time, but the two on the second page were tougher. Everyone else finished the exam and left, so the student was alone by the end of the time period. He finished the final problem at the last second.

The next day he got a phone call in his dorm room from the professor. "I don't believe it! You solved the final two problems?"

"Uh, yeah," the student said. "What's the big deal?"

"Those were brain teasers," the professor explained. "I announced before the exam that they wouldn't count toward your final grade, but you missed that because you were late. But hardly anyone solves those problems in so short a time! You must be a genius!"

"Genius" is sometimes just not realizing that something is impossible.

Truly, some feats are impossible. I don't expect ever to see a person fly without some mechanical help. I'm not betting on anyone outrunning a high-speed locomotive. But then, I probably wouldn't have put money on Antonio Albertondo, who swam the English Channel in 1961.

The channel waters are cold and unpredictable. Only a tiny percentage of those who have attempted to swim across have reached the other side. But Antonio, who was 42 at the time, swam from England to France, where his waiting friends congratulated him for accomplishing what they thought was impossible for a man his age.

Antonio stopped long enough for a hot drink and told his friends they hadn't seen the impossible yet. Then he dove back into the water, swam 22 more hours and made it back to England. Did he accomplish the impossible? I vote yes.

I do believe that there are limits to our physical abilities. But I absolutely accept that our minds have capabilities that we cannot begin to comprehend. Antonio's physical accomplishment also had a major mental component. He put his mind to accomplishing the seemingly impossible.

"So many of our dreams at first seem impossible, then they seem improbable, and then, when we summon the will, they soon become inevitable," said Christopher Reeve. The late actor's dream of walking after a catastrophic horseback riding accident was never realized, but because of his activism and fund-raising activities, major research breakthroughs for spinal injuries have given hope to many.

While most of us will be asked to perform difficult assignments, not many will be actually expected to accomplish the seemingly impossible. Some days we may wonder how we'll get all our work done, or catch up, or be successful in the next project. Those days pass, usually leaving us with a sense of pride that we have greater capacity for achievement than we realized.

What we call progress was once called impossible. If necessity is the mother of invention, then a positive attitude is the master of the impossible.

A positive attitude leads you to ask, "What's possible?" and then follows that question with, "What else is possible?"

The Walt Disney Co. employs "imagineers" to explore the possibilities and push the limits of reality. Even though their businesses are built on fantasy and illusion, the effects must all look real and believable. I believe accomplishing the seemingly impossible is a daily event for this creative and determined company.

We can do this in our businesses too -- and we must if we intend to survive. If you value your customers as much as we value ours at MackayMitchell Envelope Co., you'll settle for nothing less. A positive attitude, creativity and determination combine to create genius.

Former First Lady Nancy Reagan recounts a story about the genius of the Greatest Generation. "Once, at the University of California, a student got up to say that it was impossible for people of Ronald Reagan's generation to understand the next generation of young people.

"You grew up in a different world," the student said. "Today we have television, jet planes, space travel, nuclear energy, computers ...."

"When the student paused for breath, Ronnie said: 'You're right. We didn't have those things when we were young. We invented them.'"

Mackay's Moral: What could you accomplish if no one told you it was impossible?

Harvey Mackay is a Minneapolis businessman and author. Contact him at 612-378-6202 or send e-mail to harvey@mackay.com. His column is distributed by United Feature Syndicate.

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