Possible by default

5 August 2021
5 Aug 2021

A while ago, I wrote on my main blog about more intentionally disambiguating “impossible” things from things that are merely very difficult. The idea has since grown with me, and recently I gave a talk for the Startmate Fellowship about a related idea, which is that you should approach new ideas with a “possible by default” mindset.

I think as we grow up and go through school and work, we’re conditioned into an “impossible by default” mindset, where the assumption about any particular difficult task is that it would be impossible, and we place the burden on ourselves to try to prove that it’s in fact possible, alongside the burden of actually doing it.

The most capable people I know, who routinely pull off impressive feats, seem to operate on a “possible by default” mindset instead. In this mindset, for any new task or challenge, they assume they can do it, and try to find the path that will get them there (which exists, under this unfounded but ambitious assumption). The burden is on them to prove that the challenge is, in fact, impossible. This mindset seems to help ambitious people surmount the gap we all have between what we can actually do and what we estimate our abilities to be. This mindset can help us practice being more ambitious. Some of my favorite side projects, both technical and artistic, were also consequences of me “jumping the gun” to try to implement something without carefully considering first whether it would be feasible.

Lately, I’ve been thinking deeply about the future of the Web, the web browser, and personal information management tools. Innovating at the intersection of these staple technologies is a daunting task, but I hope to approach this problem space with the same “possible by default” framework – by assuming that generation-defining innovations will happen in this space, and then trying to chart my course towards it.

Escape velocities

Scales of cities, scales of software