Nothing is impossible

Nothing is impossible, the word itself says I’m possible.

Discover how people manage to perform incredible feats, such as reciting 100,000 decimal places of the number pi.

Who’s the author

Audrey Hepburn (1929 – 1993) was a Belgian-born British actress and UN ambassador for UNICEF. After a difficult childhood - her parents divorced, World War II and the war winter in the Netherlands - she rose to become a fashion icon in the 1950s. Breakfast at Tiffany's is undoubtedly still her most famous film.

How to apply it in your every day life

Three points are crucial if you want to make the impossible, the possible:

1.         Purpose or goal: you can only achieve something if you are interested by the topic and intrinsically motivated.

2.         Practice or practice: achievements don't come overnight; you achieve them only after a lot of practice.

3.         Persistence or perseverance: mastery is achieved only when you have found a method of continuous improvement for yourself.

What does it mean?

You can do more than you think, Audrey Hepburn seems to be saying here. Or, as Nelson Mandela summed it up, "It always seems impossible until it is done".

Nice to know...

“Flight by machines heavier than air is impractical and insignificant, if not utterly impossible,” said physicist and Head of the US Naval Observatory, Simon Newcomb, in 1902. A year later, the Wright brothers proved otherwise with the first flight of their glider. Even two years after the Wright brothers had covered 38 kilometres with their Flyer 3, William H. Pickering, Director at Harvard College Observatory, said, “It is clear that with our present devices there is no hope of aircraft competing for racing speed with either our locomotives or automobiles”.

The article


New York, 1961. It’s early morning and a yellow taxi stops on an empty Fifth Avenue at the luxury jewellery shop Tiffany’s. An elegant young lady in a beautiful ‘little black dress’ by Hubert de Givenchy, with dark sunglasses and her brown hair in a French twist, totters on her heels towards the window. Dreaming, she admires the beautiful jewellery. She conjures a croissant and a coffee from a white paper bag. And thus begins the famous opening scene of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a romantic comedy by Blake Edwards, based on a novel by Truman Capote, in which Audrey Hepburn’s elegant and iconic appearance continues to capture the imagination even today. Could Audrey Hepburn have imagined in 1944, while languishing in the Dutch famine that plagued occupied Holland, that 17 years later she would star in a Hollywood blockbuster? I suspect not. And perhaps that’s why she would have said, “Nothing is impossible, the word itself says I'm possible. A fine play on words by an iconic lady, who remains a role model for many today for her elegance, good taste and philanthropic commitment.


Jules Verne and the light bulb

Over the past 200 years, science has made huge leaps forward that many considered impossible. As a child, like many, I loved Jules Verne’s books. Around the World in 80 Days, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, From the Earth to the Moon... Each title fired my imagination as a little boy. The technical challenges Verne wrote about were still considered impossible in his time. Today, they are standard technology: Travel around the world in 80 days? In 1992, Concorde flew around the earth in a record time of 33 hours. Twenty thousand leagues under the sea? Submarines have been in use since the early 1900s. Travelling to the moon? Apollo 11 landed on the moon on 24 July 1969... And what does the future bring? Nuclear fusion, time travel, becoming invisible... all still science fiction today, just as Jules Verne's books once were.

We have, along with many experts, misjudged what was possible in the past. Some examples...150 years ago, the idea of the light bulb was laughed off by many experts. In 1878, Thomas Edison announced that he was developing an incandescent lamp which had an immediate effect on the price of gas (public lighting in big cities was done by gaslight). A British parliamentary committee set up an enquiry and, after careful consideration, concluded: “Good enough for our transatlantic friends... but unworthy of the attention of practical or scientific men”.



“Flight by machines heavier than air is impractical and insignificant, if not utterly impossible,” said physicist and Head of the US Naval Observatory, Simon Newcomb, in 1902. A year later, the Wright brothers proved otherwise with the first flight of their glider. Even two years after the Wright brothers had covered 38 kilometres with their Flyer 3, William H. Pickering, Director at Harvard College Observatory, said, “It is clear that with our present devices there is no hope of aircraft competing for racing speed with either our locomotives or automobiles”.

And what are we to make of this statement by great mathematical genius, John von Neumann, in 1949 when he announced the end of further progress in computer technology: “It would appear that we have reached the limits of what it is possible to achieve with computer technology”. Fortunately, he was savvy enough to immediately add “although one should be careful with such statements, as they tend to sound pretty silly in five years”.


Three necessary elements to turn the impossible into the possible

“It always seems impossible until it’s done,” said Nelson Mandela. For instance, a man can run 100 metres in 9.58 seconds, eat 103 hamburgers in eight minutes and not blink for one hour, 17 minutes and three seconds. These are feats that are impossible for you and me today but mankind has managed to achieve them. And why do Jamaican Usain Bolt, American Joey Chestnut and American Julio Jaime respectively succeed in this?

Or take Japanese Akira Haraguchi. This Tokyo resident is the world record holder in memorising and reciting decimal places of the number pi. You and I know that pi is 3.14 and some may go as far as 1592 after that and inform us that pi is the ratio of the circumference to the diameter of a circle. Pi is an irrational number, meaning it has an infinite number of decimals with no repetitive parts. And that is why it is a challenge for many to memorise as many decimal places as possible. At 9 am on 3 October 2006, Akira started reciting decimal digits of the number pi. The next day at 1 am, after 16 hours of recitation, he had recited 100,000 digits in the correct order. He further improved this record on pi day 2015 when he was able to recite 111,701 decimal digits. In an interview, Akira Haraguchi says of his fascination with pi: “To me, reciting pi’s digits has the same meaning as chanting the Buddhist mantra and meditating. I’m trying to do more these days, making it a daily goal to recite more than 25,000 digits, which takes me about three hours.”

Here, Akira immediately raises two of the three points I think are crucial if you want to make the impossible the possible:

  1. Purpose: you can only achieve something if you are interested in the topic and intrinsically motivated. For Akira, it’s not just memorising numbers, but his efforts have a religious-philosophical meaning
  2. Practice: achievements don’t come overnight. You achieve them only after a lot of practice. Akira aims to train for three hours every day
  3. Persistence: mastery is achieved only when you have found a method of continuous improvement for yourself. You will read later how Akira achieves this


The three steps to purpose and commitment

In the early 1980s, American educational psychologist, Benjamin Bloom, launched a study to answer the question: what can we discover in the childhood of successful individuals that explains why they are so extremely good at what they do? To do this, Bloom interviewed 120 people in six fields – Olympic swimmers, tennis champions, concert pianists, mathematicians, neurologists and sculptors looking for common patterns in their childhood. Based on his analysis, he defined three stages that each ‘expert’ went through:

  • Phase 1: Starting. In this phase, children develop an interest in a particular domain. They play, explore, and discover... their interest is still largely external: they work for attention, applause and approval, mainly from their parents
  • Phase 2: Developing. Now things get serious. After playing in the first phase, they now practice regularly. As they get better at what they do, they develop internal motivation by gaining respect and approval from peers, parents and teachers. The children also begin to self-identify as ‘swimmer’, ‘pianist’ or ‘scientist’...
  • Phase 3: Deepening. Youngsters get an internal drive to become the best in their field and they are willing to sacrifice a lot for this. They seek out the best coaches and schools and practise several hours a day

Bloom nicely describes a process we are all familiar with. We find something interesting, start delving into it and, before we know it, it is an out-of-control hobby that has taken up the whole attic room or garage...


The 10,000-hour rule


In his bestseller, Outliers – The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell describes the rule of 10,000 hours of practice using some examples. The Beatles trek to Hamburg five times between 1960 and 1962 where they perform for more than 270 nights. Gladwell estimates that they performed at least 1,200 times before their big breakthrough. Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, spent evenings and weekends programming in the computer lab at the University of Washington in the early 1970s... The point Gladwell wants to make then is that John Lennon, Paul McCarthy and Bill Gates are undoubtedly talented at their craft, but without persistent practice, you won’t get anywhere.

Gladwell took his cue from a 1993 study by Swede Anders Ericsson, a psychologist at Florida State University. He studied several musicians at the Berlin Academy of Music to find out why some violinists were better than others. The professors at the academy divided the students into two groups – the best violinists and the good violinists. Ericsson collected a lot of biographical data and was able to conclude that, at 18, the best violinists had practised, on average, 7,410 hours independently, the good violinists only achieved an average of 5,301 hours. Ericsson did a similar study on ballet dancers and came to the same result – to achieve top performances, you have to practise for thousands of hours.


Keep on going

Nothing is impossible, as long as you are motivated enough in what you want to achieve. And after that, you need to sink your teeth firmly into your goal and practice. And finally, you must also demonstrate perseverance and continuous improvement.

The latter is sometimes described as deliberate practice. Not only is the number of hours you practise important importantly, but also how you practise and what specific skills you learn to take the next step in your mastery. In chess, for example, this could be specific memory training, in sports, or specific breathing techniques.


Three elements are crucial in deliberate practice:

  1. Specific: Deliberate practice means you break down your performance into small pieces, you identify your weaknesses, for these weaknesses, you determine specific workouts and you evaluate progress
  2. Concentration: during practice, you are present with your full attention. Take running for example an average athlete listens to some music or thinks about everything but his running technique while running. With deliberate practice, you just start concentrating on a particular piece of your running technique
  3. Feedback: you provide feedback. This can be done, for example, by keeping data or a coach guiding you during your performance

This example from Aubrey Daniels on basketball sums up perfectly what deliberate practice means: “Player A shoots 200 practice shots, Player B shoots 50. Player B retrieves his shots, dribbles leisurely and takes several breaks to talk to friends. Player A has a colleague who retrieves the ball after each attempt. The colleague keeps a record of shots made. If the shot is missed the colleague records whether the miss was short, long, left or right and the shooter reviews the results after every 10 minutes of practice. To characterize their hour of practice as equal would hardly be accurate. Assuming this is typical of their practice routine and they are equally skilled at the start, which would you predict would be the better shooter after only 100 hours of practice?”

Closing with our Japanese friend Akira Haraguchi “who ate all the pi”. A basic principle of mnemonic or memory art is to give structure to data that has no structure so that you can remember it more easily. For example, for the number pi, you can create texts where the number of letters in each word indicates the consecutive digits of pi. As in this example by English scientist James Jeans: “How I want a drink, alcoholic of course, after the heavy lectures involving quantum mechanics.”

Akira Haraguchi developed his language by assigning Japanese kana alphabet symbols to digits.

  • 0 => can be replaced by o, ra, ri, ru, re, ro, wo, on or oh
  • 1 => can be replaced by a, i, u, e, hi, bi, pi, an, ah, hy, hyan, bya or byan
  • And so on

In this way, Akira translates the 111,701 decimal places together into 800 stories about people, animals and plants. For example, the first 50 digits of the number pi are this story: “Well, I, that fragile being who left my hometown to find peace of mind, is going to die in the dark corners; it’s easy to die, but I stay positive.” And so Akira developed and improved his memory training method. “I have managed to develop a certain methodology for improving cognitive abilities, so I have been trying to contribute to society by introducing something like the “Haraguchi method” of recovering from dementia”.


Ihsane Haouach

  • Nothing is impossible, the word itself says I'm possible, looks like an easy American slogan. But you have to find the energy to go for it every day. Where do you find your energy to persevere?

My main driver comes from asking 'why.' I constantly question why I'm doing something, and if I'm lost, I reflect on why I started. I've done a lot of things in my life because I had to do them, and now I want to do things that I really want to do.

My ultimate aim is societal improvement and making an impact. I want to create a sustainable society where everyone can live well together. I love learning, and that's why I give training. It's not just about sharing knowledge, but also about learning from the participants and being challenged by them. Continuous learning is vital, and having fun through it is essential.

There's a saying that “     the end justifies the means”     , but I don't believe that. I think it's better to do less and has less impact but stay true to your values.

When I'm tired, my family is my greatest support system. They give me unconditional love and make it easy for me to let go of stress. I believe that staying true to your values and having a supportive family are critical to success.


  • The quote is from Audrey Hepburn, a British actress from the 1950s - 1960s. Hepburn had a difficult childhood, divorced parents, World War II, the war winter in the Netherlands... Does the quote have extra meaning for you because Audrey Hepburn is a woman?

Not really. But what I respect a lot is that she has faced difficult challenges throughout her life, but she remained committed to making a positive impact on society. It is the responsibility of all celebrities to use their platform to raise awareness of important issues, not just through monetary donations but also by actively engaging in discussions and actions.

While I find it inspiring to hear about people who have overcome great obstacles, it is important to remember that their experiences may not be applicable to everyone. It is not as simple as just "fighting a bit more." I do believe, however, that hearing these stories can give us hope and encourage us to push ourselves to achieve our goals.

Overall, I believe that each person has a responsibility to make a positive impact on society, whether through volunteering, donating, or simply being kind and respectful to others. While we should not expect everyone to be a celebrity, those who do have a platform should use it to raise awareness of important issues and inspire positive change.

  • In your book "Open up your organization", you argue that a Board of Directors composed of people of different ages, gender, and origin... is not enough because such a diverse Board can make the same mistake as a uniformly composed meeting. Can you explain that a bit more?

I am not saying that diversity of appearance is not important, but it is not enough. For an organization to be truly diverse and inclusive, it needs to have diversity of thought and an openness to listening to everyone's opinions. The ability to speak up is crucial for everyone to reach higher levels of understanding, and this can only happen if there is openness and patience within the organization. This requires companies to make inclusivity a core value, rather than just a statement. To make decisions more inclusive, it is important to enable active listening and ask critical questions. This exercise can be tiring, but it is necessary to put oneself in the shoes of others and understand how they feel. Empathy is a critical component of inclusivity, and it is necessary to build personal connections in a company. The four pillars of inclusivity are openness, patience, empathy, and nature. Being natural while being open can be a tricky balance, but it is important to find a healthy tension between these values. For example, respect is a core value that is universal, but everyone has a different interpretation of it. When colleagues complain about a lack of respect, it is important to understand their interpretation of respect and work towards finding a common ground that respects everyone's preferences.

I believe that diversity of thought and openness are essential for organizations to reach their full potential. While it's important to seek out people with different backgrounds and experiences, without a culture of inclusivity and a willingness to listen to all voices, progress will be limited. In my book, I argue that even organizational settings like holacracy or democracy can be less inclusive than classic hierarchical settings if the mindset behind is not there. To truly value diversity, it needs to be a core value of the organization, not just a superficial statement.

It's not just about who makes the final decision, but who is heard in the decision-making process. Even if power is split, if there is no openness, patience, or empathy, decisions will be less sustainable and more likely to be contested. It's crucial to give everyone in the organization a chance to speak and be heard, even if it takes more time.

Active listening, empathy, and patience are necessary for creating an inclusive environment. It can be tiring and require a lot of energy, but it's necessary to put yourself in someone else's shoes and understand their perspective. Inclusivity is personal and can affect people differently, from minorities to those with disabilities. It's important to be open and natural, but also to find a healthy balance between the two. Inclusivity is about creating a place where everyone can be themselves and feel comfortable expressing their thoughts and emotions. It's a continuous process, and one that requires ongoing effort and attention.

It's important to be inclusive of everyone, including women, people from different backgrounds, and younger employees. For example, one person I interviewed thought they had achieved diversity in their company but then realized that all their employees were around 25 years old, which is not true diversity. We need to think about complementarity instead of similarity, which means valuing different experiences, attitudes, and profiles, rather than just looking for missing skills.


  • Which quote would you like to see Dr Quote cover in the future?

The first thing that came to mind for me was the story of Rosa Parks and the civil rights movement in the United States. I wrote and performed      a role in a theatre play (“381 Jours”, by Ras El Hanout) about the movement and had the opportunity to visit the U.S. The play was based on the boycott of buses by Black Americans who were protesting against segregation. It was a difficult time for them because having a car or a bike was expensive. But, they managed to boycott all the buses, and Rosa Parks was one of the first persons to refuse to give      her seat to a white person. The boycott started after her arrest and 381 days later,      the civil rights movement won the end of segregation. Her quote, "You must never be fearful about what you are doing when it is right," has stuck with me. It's important to remember that if you believe in what you're doing, you should stick with it. Nothing is impossible, and even the simplest actions can make a big difference.

To agree or disagree... that's the question!

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