Jacques Mattheij

Technology, Coding and Business

You can't do that

For the first couple of years of my career (for want of a better description), whenever the words ‘you can’t do that’ were used I took them literally. It meant to me that whatever it was that I had set my head to was not possible. So I turned the other way to study some other problem, one that presumably was solvable.

Then one fine summer afternoon I got hired by a guy that wanted to create a random code based on microscopic glass beads. He’d gone to a variety of institutions and he’d been told ‘you can’t do that’ every time he outlined his plan.

I told him that I didn’t see any reason why it couldn’t be done, it might be hard, but it definitely looked doable. In a nutshell, his idea was that if you sprayed microscopic glass beads and a glue carrier on to plastic sheets and cut credit card sized sections out of the sheets that you’d have a very hard to forge unique card.

The trick to reading back the ID of such a card would be to light it up and to figure out based on the reflection where the beads were, the positions of the beads were used to construct a very long number. Because the cards were subject to wear the code would have to be pretty resilient against beads that went missing, but as a rule beads would not change their place. Within a couple of weeks we had a bunch of cards. Now we needed a reader.

Place after place turned us down. It was impossible, it couldn’t be done. Finally - after a lot of headscratching - I offered to design the optics and have a friend build the prototype reader. Of course this was met with considerable scorn from the companies that had turned us down, after all, they knew their optics and I was an absolute nobody. But we needed them to grind the custom lens and eventually they did. The custom optics mount was a little jewel, it contained a lightsource, 50% mirror, a sample slide and a mount for a camera, all in several hand made pieces of aluminum and plastic.

It worked on the first try, depth of field was quite critical but once ‘set’ it kept its calibration well enough to be used for demonstrations for years. In the end the project led nowhere, apparently there was a patent that it violated (of all things, one that had to do with the codes on laundry for hotels and hospitals held by Philips) but that by itself had nothing to do with the technology or whether it was possible to build this.

‘You can’t do that’ changed its meaning for me.

When, before it used to mean ‘You can’t do that’ it now started to take on a new meaning: “I don’t see how you can do that”, or even “I can’t do that”. And I think that is usually its meaning. When someone tells you ‘you can’t do that’ what they really mean to say is not that it is impossible, what they mean to say is that they don’t know how to do that. And in my experience when enough people are saying that ‘you can’t do that’ there is an opportunity waiting for you that is proportional in pay-off to the number of people asserting that it can’t be done.

The ‘idea dumps’ are invariably the postings here that generate a lot of feedback, and quite a few times I’ve seen the ‘you can’t do that’ or ‘that’s impossible’ in response to one of the ideas posted here. So, if those ideas are ‘impossible’ how come that for each and every one of them I have a fairly good idea how you could go about implementing them? They’re not impossible, they’re merely hard.

Don’t let yourself be limited by what other people say is possible or not possible. If all inventors would let themselves be detracted like that we’d still be taking horse buggies to the market, instead of driving our cars, flying airplanes and using mobile phones. The impossible is usually a lot more doable than most people think it is.

Of course, a ‘cure for cancer’ or ‘free electricity’ or any other pipe-dream can be easily dismissed as ‘impossible’. But fewer people dying from cancer or cheaper electricity and so on is believable and doable. Rarely are inventions end-runs around the rules, most of the time they are incremental steps based on everything that is already there. And looking at all the miracles around us you have to be pretty pig headed to persist in saying ‘that’s impossible’ or ‘you can’t do that’ when someone proposes a modest advance of the state of the art.

Let your limits be determined by (the laws of) physics and other real world constraints, not by the lack of imagination or (wrong) knowledge of others.

You can do that. It’s possible. I believe you can do it. So go and chase your dreams and your visions and let the nay sayers stand there educating the world about their limits, not about yours.