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Most things are easy or impossible, not difficult

Most things are easy or impossible, not difficult.

I read this the other day, a comment left on facebook by an old pal. It set me thinking. At first I wanted to agree. I could see it meant either, whenever we attempt something new, there's an obvious procedure to follow which will result in success, or there isn't- in which case we give up, move on to something easy, clear, not a waste of one’s valuable time. 

One definition of ‘impossible’ becomes 'not worth the effort'. Impossible things become synonymous with wasting a lot of time.

In fact it resonated with something I've learnt the hard way- how to spot a deadend without having to go right to the end to see for oneself. Being able to spot deadends- novel ideas that just won't fly- is a very useful kind of mastery. Often you find, say when writing a story, it's either great straightaway or never really gets going no matter how much flogging you do. So saying something is either impossible or easy could be another way of saying that most promise is in the premise.

No one wants to waste time. If we are having to do a lot of new things on a regular basis then we might need a way of weeding out what is a good or not so good way to spend our time. When a new thing presents itself with a bolted on procedure so we can see what it entails we think ‘oh goody, it’s easy’ or, if it has no obvious procedure we think ‘impossible! Next!’

As we get older we get to hate ‘wasting time’. But we actually still spend hours watching TV, drinking, eating, socialising, pottering. What we mean by ‘wasted time’ is there is no payback for us, no pleasure. We get greedy. My friend’s son spent hours and hours learning how to do football tricks. Tricks that looked impossible to me. It didn’t look like fun either, constantly doing them wrong until he finally cracked a trick. He no longer does those tricks. Was that time wasted? Of course not. Time spent learning anything is rewiring the brain, building connections. In a sense, any time we spend NOT learning is time wasted.

To be able to call the shots, pronounce on whether something is impossible or not also implies we have some choice over which missions we accept and which we reject. If you HAVE to do something then it may seem impossible at first. But you keep at it and eventually work out how to do it. In some situations, like an expedition there is a lot of seemingly impossible stuff to overcome, but you HAVE to do it and you find it is, after all, merely difficult; but an expedition doesn’t last forever.

When we get back to real life we gradually make things easier for ourselves, and shift towards things that are ‘easy’ in as much as they are non-challenging.

In fact as we get older the fear of what is difficult, the dislike of the ambiguity of not knowing, the humiliating experience of being a new boy or even a class dunce, the feeling of being all at sea- these are increasingly unwelcome experiences. So we are tempted to label anything that suggests these things as impossible. Which means we can safely ignore them without impugning our ability to learn.

I think putting up with the ambiguity of not really knowing exactly what is going on becomes less tolerable as we get older. People who are good at learning languages have a higher tolerance for this ambiguity than people who aren’t. or else they know how to deflect unwanted attention when they screw up. Or they make a game of it. Otherwise clever folk are too serious in this respect. I know several very clever people whose prediliction for being in control means that, abroad they only speak English. They can’t bear to lose face, and face having their accent mocked by a Parisian waiter or a Croatian bus conductor.

The ambiguous feeling of being a ‘bit at sea’, like your first day at school, merely requires us to observe and see what happens. Mostly we try and assert ourselves though, remind others we’re important too. So it isn’t about being in control, it’s about using control as a way of saying ‘look at me, I’m important too’.

If we sense we are going to be a bit lost for a while we learn to call this option ‘impossible’, safe to ignore, whereas it is actually merely rather hard, hard because the experience of ‘being small’ and not very important is a hard one for some to bear when you’ve got used to the magnificent feeling of being very important.

‘Difficult’, to any schoolchild, means a slightly different sort of  ‘hard’; hard to do, hard to grasp, hard work to learn. It means hours of effort. It means brainache. For some, maths is easy, but for many it is hard. But not impossible.

One also has to consider the fact that what constitutes 'difficult' changes over time. What was difficult aged 10 or 20 might seem pretty easy now. And also the reverse of course - crawling through narrow spaces springs to mind. But more importantly our sense of 'difficult' can change when we adopt a different outlook. Yesterday my phone line stopped working but the broadband didn't. Normally I would consign fixing this to the impossible category. The line tested as OK so the fault was probably in the wiring...maybe. Because I have been writing about polymathy I thought I ought to investigate. Now the problem was borderline difficult/impossible. Phone wires come in thick confusing bundles, but then I looked on the net and found an explanation; and of course for a normal line you need only two wires. Now it was just difficult. I rummaged under the stairs and found these- together with an unused extension cable. One comment on a thread suggested electrical effects in extensions could affect the phone line. I disconnected it and sure enough fixed the phone. A day earlier it had seemed impossible, then, with the head change to polymath, merely difficult. And in the telling it sounds all too easy.

I have been rather good recently at shying away from tasks that involve serious learning- such as languages and new skills. I began to feel a growing reluctance to make my brain suffer, to make it recall new stuff. Everything we currently know about brain plasticity tells us we should engage with the difficult. Even if we are tempted to call it impossible at first or even second glance.

Take a look at what you think is impossible and see if it isn’t after all, merely difficult. And with a great deal of effort might actually be accomplishable. So that later, when people ask, you’ll be able to say ‘It was pretty easy actually’.


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