Early on in my career a very seasoned technology veteran at IBM once told me, “What’s beautiful about working with you, Maynard, is you haven’t been trained on why this is impossible.” It’s true, I hadn’t been trained on anything, so I might have missed that lesson too!
So often, we’re told something is “impossible.” But very little is actually impossible. You will improve your career (and your life) if you hear that constraint differently—as an opportunity—and then find a way to make the impossible possible.
I’ve always been awed by what can be achieved when your back is to the wall and there’s intense pressure on teams to perform. I’ve seen them do amazingly well and complete things in days that would have taken weeks or months in a normal situation. They cram so much in, getting 36 hours of work, or more, into just 12.
I call these miracles. We experienced several at eBay. Let me tell you about one, which happened in the aftermath of 9/11. Moments after the attack I got a call from eBay’s Trust & Safety division: Someone tried to auction rubble from the Twin Towers on our site. It was our policy not to allow sellers to profit from disasters. We also realized there was something bigger that could be done rather than just stopping the vulture postings. That afternoon then-Governor Pataki called and asked if we could auction items that were given to the state of NY and then send the proceeds to charities. What about doing something bigger, we asked? What about firing up our community of sellers to help set up an auction and raise money for victims of the disaster?
We had never done a project like this, which we soon named “Auction for America.” We needed to get toll-free 1-800 numbers and create the capability for people to answer the calls. There were also tax considerations and government regulatory issues and approvals we needed. And on top of that, the coding itself was massively complex. Based on how we regularly operated, this would have taken us six months—but we didn’t have that kind of time.
We worked night and day, literally, for four nights. Maybe that sounds hellacious, but it wasn’t. In that time we built a fully functioning auction site. Jay Leno donated his motorcycles and Bo Derek donated her bathing suits. By letting go of the old way of doing things and unleashing the potential of the team and the community, we raised $25 million.
All of us can do more than we think we can do. But we put more constraints on ourselves than other people put on us. It’s time to stop. There’s never been a better time to change the way you think. Replace every “I can’t” with “How can I?” It might sound like semantics, but I promise it will bring whatever you want to accomplish much closer to becoming a reality.