I’d like to talk about a feeling that I’ve felt over and over again in my life. A feeling that is a basis for a lot of my work and my personal thoughts.
I call it, the wall.
We’ve all heard the phrase “hitting the wall”. It’s used by long-distance runners when they feel they can’t run anymore. It’s a general idiom used when someone or something is trying to make progress, but they’ve reached the phase where they just can’t, and they’re stuck.
The wall I’m talking about is similar, but different.
Imagine you’re stuck in a closed room. There are no doors and no windows. It’s all just wall. You put your hands on the wall and feel its texture. You want to get out, and be on the other side of the wall, but you have no idea how. You have no tools at your disposal. No hammer to break the wall with, nothing but your bare hands.
You could say it’s impossible to pass the wall, but even the word “impossible” fails to convey the desperation you’re feeling at that moment. You consider beating the wall with your bare hands until they’re raw and bleeding. Maybe you’ll make a dent. If only you had a hammer. Or a tank. But you don’t. They’re just sad fantasies that you have trying to get away from how futile your mission is.
But you know all these fantasies aren’t going to come true. You know you’re gonna have to solve it yourself. It seems impossible, because you’re expected to make something out of nothing. That’s the crux of the matter: Making something out of nothing.
And this is where the good part starts.
But let’s back away from that for a moment and think how this wall metaphor is relevant to our lives.
The image of the wall comes to my mind when I’m solving a problem that seems very hard, and it seems I have no tools at my disposal to solve it. I have no leads. I have nothing to work on.
The image came to me in my childhood when I played the computer game Myst, a notoriously difficult adventure game.
The image came to me when I studied mathematics, trying to find proofs for unbelievable theorems.
The image came to me when I studied physics, and tried discovering the laws of the universe using nothing but my human brain and a few modest instruments.
The image came to me in my work as a software developer, especially when thinking about how assymetric encryption allows two parties to communicate securely without having exchanged an encryption key beforehand.
The wall is such a recurring theme in my life, that I’ve romanticized it, and in a sense, I’ve become addicted to it. I like making other people feel it too, which is why I do things like put up a challenge for people to break an encryption I made. The futility of looking at an endless sea of hex values… Your logical mind knows that there’s a rhyme and reason to each and every bit of the ciphertext, but you can’t stop feeling more and more desperate as you try different ways to solve it, and nothing works.
What’s the appeal of the wall? Why do I romanticize such a state of utter futility, which seems to lead to nothing but failure and depression?
Because when you’re hit hard with the expectation to make something out of nothing is when you start to realize: The nothing you thought you had is not actually nothing. Your senses become sharper and more sensitive. You start realizing that you did get clues to solving the problem, you just ignored them. You start realizing that you do have tools to solving the problem, you just took them for granted.
When I tried to prove the ludicrous theorem about indescribable numbers, I thought that I was hopelessly unequipped to solve it. But then a few months in I realized that cardinal numbers are the tool to solve the problem, and I used them and indeed solved the problem. I was amazed. I felt like I was discovering a superpower; but the power was always there, a few Wikipedia links away, it just wouldn’t come out until I faced a challenge big enough to make me find it.
If you’re smart, you won’t stop appreciating your newfound tools after you’ve broken that specific wall. You’ll know how to use them when faced with more everyday challenges. And you’ll come out of the experience stronger and more formidable.