In 1939, George Dantzig was late for a graduate-level statistics class at the University of California, Berkeley. The young doctoral student noted two problems on the blackboard, so he copied them, assuming they were homework. The problems seemed more difficult than usual, so it took him a few days to work out solutions and turn them in.
He apologized to his professor for being late turning in the homework, but the professor just told him to put it on his overcrowded desk. Nothing else was said about the work until about six weeks later. On a Sunday morning, Dantzig and his wife were awakened at 8 a.m. The professor was banging on the door, all excited.
“[The professor] rushed in with papers in hand, all excited,” Dantzig told the College Mathematics Journal in a 1986 interview. “‘I’ve just written an introduction to one of your papers. Read it so I can send it out right away for publication.’ For a minute I had no idea what he was talking about. To make a long story short, the problems on the blackboard that I had solved thinking they were homework were in fact two famous unsolved problems in statistics. That was the first inkling I had that there was anything special about them.”
Dantzig went on to do important work in computer programming and served on the faculties of Berkeley and Stanford, so he was undoubtedly a talented and intelligent man. But what made him different from all the other talented and intelligent men and women who had worked on those two problems for years and found no solutions to them? Those other people had been told that the problems were difficult — that they were unsolved, maybe even unsolvable — while Dantzig just assumed they were routine homework problems, which obviously must have answers.
I thought about this story Monday afternoon when a friend was telling me how easy it is to write and publish books. My friend has recently discovered self-publishing and selling books on Amazon. My friend doesn’t read books himself — he sees books more like reference manuals in which to look up facts, nothing more — but he’s gotten it into his head that it’s so easy to sell books that I ought to have a dozen or so books for sale by now.
This notion seemed laughable to me. I spent the next 30 minutes carefully explaining to him why it’s difficult to write a book worth reading and why it’s difficult to get people to notice your book even if you write it. I explained how much time it takes to write a book and how I don’t have enough time to focus on writing these days. I explained why it was impossible to get books sold through book stores if you didn’t go through traditional publishers. And I explained how publishers are inundated with manuscripts which were barely read or maybe even never read.
In general, I explained to him him it was impossible for me to successfully write and publish books.
As I drove home, I found myself thinking about Dantzig. Maybe I was acting like all those previous grad students and professors who had declared those problems to be unsolvable. Maybe I don’t bother to do more of what I’m capable of doing because I already know how “impossible” those things are.
I’ve become quite annoyed with myself over this tonight, because it represents another chapter of the long struggle in my mind between doing what I need to do and “being reasonable.”
When I was younger, I seemed to do a lot of things which other people thought were impossible. I used to joke that my company’s slogan would be, “We do the difficult immediately; the impossible takes a little longer.” But somewhere along the way, I started becoming reasonable. Pragmatic. Responsible. Sensible.
In a way, I became all the things I used to hate, because I used to hate people who didn’t think they could do anything.
The thing about it is, I know that every objection I raised to my friend today about publishing and selling books was a legitimate objection. Not a word of what I said was wrong. But somebody is out there making money doing publishing books of the sort I’d like to write. Why not me? Is it simply because I know it’s impossible?
What exactly would I do if I didn’t know enough to know what was impossible?
Note: You might have read other versions of the Dantzig story before, because a greatly embellished version of it was told in an old book by the late Robert Schuller and other versions spread from there. There’s a little bit more to the factual story which I didn’t include. Here’s the full version if you’re interested.