When I was 12, a wormhole to my future self opened up. It happened while I was building a Lego model of Big Foot, the iconic monster truck. With a fully functional transmission, snowplow, even a working winch, it was the most advanced model that I’d ever tried to put together. To me, it looked impossible.
But I kept at it, hour after hour, bit by bit, building and rebuilding. Until, after several days, I pushed the final piece into place. I marveled at my finished truck, which I named Big Toe, and I remember feeling like I’d surprised myself that I’d been able to do it.
I didn’t know it at the time, but that was my first step on the path to becoming a designer—someone who thinks up and builds things for a living. For years I was a product designer here in the Bay Area. And I got to build everything from sunglasses to anesthesia-delivery devices.
When you choose to become a designer, early on many of the things that you’re asked to do seem impossible. One of my first assignments was to construct a working bicycle … made entirely out of paper.
But over time, designers get more comfortable doing what “can’t” be done. Because they learn that if you just keep working and re-working a problem, you’ll gradually find your way to its solution. The impossible becomes, simply, the eventual. And before you know it, you’re riding a paper bike!
In these uncertain times, I think more people could benefit from approaching daunting problems like a designer would. It’s what I suggest to anyone struggling with seemingly hopeless odds. It’s what I advise graduating students who are about face the world’s challenges. It’s what I teach my seven-year-old daughter, as I watch her working on her own impossible Lego model of the Porsche 911 GT3 RS, and secretly hope that she’ll also wind up surprising herself.
Because just as the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, the road to the impossible is paved one tiny plastic brick at a time.
With a Perspective, I’m Steve Vassallo.
Steve Vassallo is a designer and venture capital investor in Silicon Valley.