The edge of impossibility

Opinion by Caleb Smith
June 21, 2017, 10:00 a.m.

It sometimes seems like Stanford exists in a special distortion of the space time continuum. The sun goes up and the sun goes down, but you could be forgiven for thinking that time stands still. The grass is almost always green. The weather is almost always great. The people almost always say they are doing “good” or “great!” Something is always under construction. Every year, a bunch of wide eyed freshmen arrive. Every year, a bunch of nostalgic seniors graduate and go trooping off into the world.

Today, those graduating seniors are us. Stanford seems to be timeless because the time between our arrival on campus and our departure at once seems an instant and a geologic era in length. After drinking deeply of the cool dark waters of knowledge for four years like we never had before, it seems almost impossible that the time has come for us to put down the glass and drink no more of Stanford’s store.

But we are well acquainted with almost impossible. Few in our class had a safe path into Stanford. For most of us, the prospect of getting into Stanford seemed almost impossible. Yet we did it. Once we got here, when faced with the full blast of human knowledge in its most intense heat, it seemed almost impossible to pick one or two meager portions to concentrate on. Yet we did it. Most of us experienced one or two (or for the more unfortunate, more) classes in which success seemed almost impossible. Yet we did it. We are here today.

At Stanford, almost impossible gives no special fright. Few ideas are more hollowed in the Stanford mythology than the idea that, in the bounty of talent at Stanford, all problems might yield to the intellect and dedication we bring to the fray. Stop nuclear proliferation? Totally doable. Colonize Mars? Way ahead of you. Cure cancer? Just give it a few more years. Taking courage from our compatriots, we trusted that our better natures could form a mosaic that frustrates the iron odds beyond our borders.

Today that mosaic breaks, and the pieces scatter to the four winds. It was perhaps always a myth that together we could solve the most intractable of all problems. We didn’t solve many near impossibilities so far. Maybe, at the cost of four years, we gained a few feet in trench warfare against the unforgiving laws of nature and the unending folly of man. Yet the struggle continues and many good things remain dauntingly, nearly impossible.

Yet this marks not the end of our hopes, but the beginning of our dreams. The fight against nearly impossible is a fight against hopelessness. If we yield to hopelessness, nearly impossible becomes truly impossible. In the past we have had allies in our struggle against nearly impossible- parents, caregivers, teachers, professors, mentors, friends, and more.  Those who have stood with us so far shall stand by us still. Treasure their counsel and despair not.

While we graduates were once a legion against the nearly impossible, today we go forth on solitary quests. Many of us do not know what comes next in our lives. Many of us think we know what comes next, but predict wrongly. Some of us actually have plotted a true course, but they are the few. Fear not to which category you belong to, because it matters not. In time, all of us can find the right road forward if we know how to look for it.

And how are we to find this path forward? The intoxicating magic of the Stanford experience may recede, but we will find that our intellects and stores of knowledge have been braced, reinforced, and filled to the brim these past four years. To do good for mankind is to do good for ourselves, and we are well equipped to pursue this calling.

But what manner of good should we pursue? Is it better to pursue a sure if smallish addition to the world’s joy, or ought we chase the great and nearly impossible at the risk of accomplishing nearly nothing if we fail?

It seems there is no single answer that fits poncho-like over us all. Try multiplying the value of success with the probability of success to find its expected value. If you want to do the most good, pursue whichever path that leads towards the greatest expected value.

This may sound perfectly logical, but we are by nature a risk-averse people, and we are all too likely to walk the trail we can see rather than climb upwards toward the towering but misty heights of our mightiest aspirations. Considering how much good we can achieve by conquering whatever near impossibility is dear to our hearts, the treacherous path up is typically the wiser one.

If we each chase the edge of impossibility, many of us will fail like meteors burning against the starry sky. Yet the more of us who make the attempt, the more wonders we shall cumulatively accomplish. Some of these wonders may be so great as to shake the very foundations of our world.

In the English language, the expression “tilting at windmills” is known as shorthand for making foolhardy attempts at great deeds. We ought not to be so stingy in our boldness. My final advice to my good friends, the Class of 2017, is to tilt at the biggest windmill you can find.


Contact Caleb Smith at calebsmithoakland ‘at’

Caleb Smith '17 is a Desk Editor from Oakland, California and is majoring in public policy. Outside the Daily, Caleb is Director of news at KZSU Stanford, the campus radio station. Have a tip or suggestion? Please contact him at caleb17 ‘at’

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