Renowned Physicist: There Are Only 2 Problems That Stop People From Achieving Anything
Author’s Note: This article was written over 60 hours with love and care using the blockbuster mental model.
Sadly, most people completely miss this and don’t achieve their goals…
The empires of the future will be empires of the mind.
Think about your biggest, most important goals. To be wealthier? Smarter? More impactful? A better person? Happier? Healthier?
What’s stopping you from achieving these?
If you ask the average person, you’ll hear things like: I’m not motivated enough, I don’t have enough money or time, I’m not smart enough, I’m not lucky. I don’t know the right people. These myriad reasons can overwhelm and confound us when we try to solve a problem or achieve a goal.
Renowned theoretical physicist David Deutsch has a fundamentally different perspective that I find extremely inspiring. In his book The Beginning Of Infinity (one of the top 10 books I have ever read), he argues that there are only two real obstacles to any problem: physics and knowledge.
Physics. Your goal needs to be possible according to the laws of physics. If it isn’t, then no amount of knowledge will make it possible. You cannot get to Mars in your Chevy Suburban, no matter how much you know about space travel.
Knowledge. If it’s physically possible, then the fundamental obstacle is always knowledge.
If that sounds a little crazy, first it’s helpful to understand the lens from which Deutsch looks at the world. He spends all of his time researching the most fundamental aspects of the most fundamental discipline, physics.
We, on the other hand, live on the opposite end of the spectrum. We think day-to-day rather than in billions of years. We think about things on the surface level rather than a fundamental level. We typically reason by analogy rather than First Principles.
We are so wrapped up in our daily challenges, that it’s almost impossible to get as big-picture as Deutsch does and see the fundamentals. But when you look at the world from his perspective, it becomes obvious that knowledge is the key to achieving all of our goals.
In the book, Deutsch gives a fascinating thought experiment to explain his reasoning. In my opinion, it is the best thought experiment that has ever been created to show knowledge’s primacy.
The Thought Experiment That Demonstrates That Knowledge Is Power
Imagine taking a cube the size of our solar system and putting it in empty intergalactic space. There would basically be nothing in the cube except hydrogen atoms. Granted, there would still be over one million tons of matter contained in the cube, but it would be spread out over a vast distance.
To most of us, we’d look at this cube and say that it’s empty and useless. To Deutsch, this emptiness is actually teeming with potential life.
Deutsch explains, “In a comprehensible universe, if something isn’t forbidden by the laws of physics, then what could possibly prevent us from doing it, other than knowing how? In other words, it’s a matter of knowledge, not resources.”
In the book, he explains how, if you had the right knowledge, you could vacuum up all of the atoms into one spot. Then a nuclear fusion reactor could combine those atoms into any other element. Finally, a 3D printer with a one-atom resolution could transform those atoms into humans and a space station that could support those humans, or anything else for that matter.
Each step in the thought experiment is possible according to the laws of physics. The only thing missing at each step is the right knowledge.
Granted, actually getting to the knowledge of how to build a fusion reactor could take a team several lifetimes in today’s world. But, that’s not the point. Simply replace the fusion reactor with your actual goals, and you’ll see the thought experiment’s power.
An Example Of The Thought Experiment In My Life
Take behavior change as an example. About 6 years ago, I attempted to create a daily reading ritual from 8–10 pm after our kids had fallen asleep. Despite wanting to, I almost never followed through. It wasn’t until I made a study of habit change that I found proven ideas to experiment with. Soon, I found a formula that I followed consistently. In the end, the problem wasn’t the kids. It wasn’t a lack of time. It wasn’t fatigue. The real reason I wasn’t consistent is that I didn’t have the right knowledge of how my mind works.
Furthermore, the only reason I knew to value spending my free time learning was because of the knowledge I had learned about its importance. Before then, I had thought of learning as a nice to have, but not essential.
Dissect any problem you’re facing, and you’ll notice a similar pattern.
Many people argue that action is more valuable than knowledge. Their case: if you don’t take action on what you know, then the knowledge has no value. This argument misses the point that to follow through on difficult habits that have long-term pay-offs actually requires knowledge.
Many people also argue that emotions and limiting beliefs are fundamental: If you don’t even believe you can, then no amount of knowledge will help. But this misses the point that beliefs about self-worth are based on knowledge of self. With the right knowledge, we can change our self-image into something that empowers us. In addition, let’s say we fear failure. With the right knowledge, we can represent failure differently in our mind, so that our fear diminishes. We can study how others successfully deal with failure and model them.
As all great thought experiments do, Deutsch’s thought experiment teaches us important lessons about how reality works…
What we can learn from Deutsch’s thought experiment:
The fundamental obstacle is always knowledge. As you get more and more fundamental on the root causes of any problem after stripping away the proximate causes, it becomes more and more apparent that knowledge is the fundamental challenge. In other words, challenges like lack of resources (e.g., money, time, and relationships) are real challenges that hold people back, but they are not fundamental. There are many things out of our control that impact our success: upbringing, genetics, parents, and the country we are born in, to name a few. These play huge roles in our lives. At the same time, there is a case to be made that, of the things we can control, knowledge is the most fundamental and important.
Knowledge is the ultimate lever to solving problems and achieving goals. In the same way that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, solving our problems at a fundamental level gives us way more leverage than just addressing them at the surface level. Therefore, the first thing we should do when solving a complex problem or pursuing a goal is to think about what knowledge we need.
Every problem is a knowledge search problem. Inventor Charles Kettering once said, “A problem well-stated is a problem half-solved.” Deutsch’s thought experiment is a problem well-stated. It frames all problems as knowledge search problems. With this framing, whenever we have a challenge, we can ask ourselves, “What knowledge am I missing? How can I most quickly find that knowledge?”
There are two places we can find the knowledge we need. First, there is OPK (other people’s knowledge) such as people in our network and the Internet, which is a store of humanity’s knowledge. This is where we should go first because virtually any problem or goal that we have has been solved/accomplished in whole or in part by many people throughout history, some of whom wrote books, created videos, or other materials sharing the approaches they used. Second, there is what I call the orchard of undiscovered knowledge. This is the knowledge that exists theoretically but just hasn’t been harvested by humanity yet. In this orchard, the trees are full of fruit. Our job is to find the ripe fruit that is ready to be picked. This ripe fruit is knowledge that is one leap of insight away from being discovered given our current collective knowledge.
Learning how to learn is one of the most valuable skill sets we can develop. If finding knowledge is essential. Then the ability to find better knowledge faster and use it is the ultimate skill. Learning how to learn is that skill set.
Bottom line: Knowledge is power
If you can define the problem differently than everybody else in the industry, you can generate alternatives that others aren’t thinking about.
―Roger L. Martin, Opposable Mind: Winning Through Integrative Thinking