How many of your failures are due to the laws of physics?
It is a question worthy of your consideration. We all have failures — moments where our choices don’t work out for us.
Some of us will shrug our shoulders and seek to apportion blame elsewhere. Some will reflect, challenging themselves to understand what went wrong.
There are times when we all find ourselves in the former camp. We play the blame game. “It’s just bad luck,” we tell ourselves.
Without realising it, we are treating the laws we created the same way we treat the laws of physics. In trying to sidestep responsibility, we fool ourselves into thinking that a law of nature has got in our way.
Unsurprisingly, we are looking at this the wrong way.
“Physics is the law, everything else is a recommendation. Anyone can break laws created by people, but I have yet to see anyone break the laws of physics.” — Elon Musk
Elon’s post, published in reply to a post about obsessing over the truth is startling. His reply summarizes this simple idea. Physics is the point where truths become provable and predictable.
In a world coping with entropy, provable and predictable truths are very attractive.
But that isn’t the lesson I want to share.
Laws created by people stretch beyond the statutory laws we think of as legal matters. Beliefs, assumptions, or opinions fall into frameworks that restrict us. They become laws in our minds as they hold us back. These mental constructs become excuses to explain our failures.
They will even stop us from trying.
It is here we need to grasp the truth Elon speaks of. The law of our minds is breakable because only the laws of physics are true.
Everything else is a recommendation.
On September 12th 1962, President John F. Kennedy publicly committed America to the space race.
“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.” — President John F. Kennedy
Before 1969, most thought it an impossibility man could walk on the moon. It served as an analogy for the things we couldn't do. What NASA achieved prompted Wernher von Braun to say, “I have learned to use the word 'impossible' with the greatest caution.”
A look back at the history of the Moon landings reveals some astonishing progress. Alan Shepard became the first American in space in 1961. Less than a decade later, American astronauts walked on the moon.
Imagine taking an analogy for the impossible and turning it into one never uttered again.
NASA pushed the limitations of what they knew to be true and clarified the laws of physics. They discovered what was possible and what wasn’t.
There is so much to take from this story.
Firstly, there is a clear strategy. Then, there was a publicly measurable outcome tied to getting ahead of an enemy (U.S.S.R). Such a well-stated long-term goal is unheard of in contemporary politics today.
But for us, the real lesson comes from the mindset it took to achieve this.
Knowing that physics is the law should free you mentally.
If physics offers the only laws you can’t (legally) break, what is holding you back from achieving anything you want?
Laws you create in your mind are limiting beliefs. It is obvious, but at the same time, it presents a truth we often choose to hide behind. Over time, it can become a prison.
You can hide behind your limiting beliefs. Or you can realise the only thing that can truly hold you back is the laws of physics.
David Deutsch frames this mindset as the principle of optimism.
Anything not prohibited by the laws of physics is possible given sufficient knowledge. Landing on the moon is an ample demonstration of this mindset in practice.
This isn’t an invitation to bury your head in books. No, it is an invitation to grasp the importance of trial and error. Here lies the opportunity to use your decisions as data points. There is talk of iterating, but few of us apply it.
The opportunity to test, learn, adapt, and test again is often a missed one.
But away from this practical way to gain knowledge, there is a bigger lesson you should grasp. It is the one Elon was trying to teach in his quote. The only law that can hold you back is the law of physics.
I can't think of anything more freeing than that.