The Road to Hyperborea

Neither by ship nor on foot would you find the marvelous road to the assembly of the Hyperboreans.

Pindar

When we are young the world seems boundless, both geographically and intellectually. There is so much to learn, so much to explore, most of which still waiting for us. We soon learn the geography of the world and begin to grasp the foundations of academic subjects. Not long after, we pick a field to focus our energies on, and as we learn more and more there is to learn about it we see the line of what was before an infinite horizon creeping ever closer. In time we arrive to the edge, we arrive to the limits of knowledge, and even if we are not quite at the edge, we can at least see it, and it is no longer that boundless horizon that captivated us before with all of the mysteries that we once thought it held. As the boundaries are drawn, so is the effect of boundlessness lost.

Boundlessness presents us with a black box in which everything is possible because the limits are undefined. Limitless potential lets our imagination flourish and kindles our passion to explore. The effect is immensely powerful, but is also easily lost, and it is lost not necessarily because all is explored, but because artificial boundaries are drawn and adhered to. The limits of existing knowledge appear as a wall: intimidating, final. We take one look at them and go back or along the edge, and all the while we avoid breaking past we solidify that wall, making it ever more final and insurmountable. At the same time, the light that shone from that infinite horizon is blocked off so that it no longer energizes us, no longer fuels our motivation to explore.

It’s the same with your own potential. We handicap ourselves artificially by drawing limits in our mind as to what we are able to do, and what we are not able to do, and indeed others are all too happy to do this on our behalf as well by creating masks that define us, masks that we in turn begin to wear ourselves. But this cannot is not real because those limits have not materialized, and will never materialize as long as we keep adhering to the self-imposed constraints. We construct a terrain in our mind, with all of its roads and mountains, and we navigate through the terrain never questioning the validity of the original assumptions, never trying to turn aside from the road and going head on to scale the mountains, mountains which may not even be there.

And even when people do break away and achieve what we thought ourselves impossible, we label them “geniuses” and thus once again create an artificial wall between us and them, drawing ever more constraints over our potential. Nietzsche warned us against this by saying that our impulse to label the most productive of us as “geniuses” – and that is what they are, productive individuals who have built up enough experience and have created enough material from which they can select the very best – relieves us of the pressure to compete with them. The label lifts them above our playing field, separates them from us, so that the benchmarks they’ve created no longer apply to us. It’s a declaration of surrender.

I don’t know how to break free from such chains, or how to rekindle the mystery of limitless potential that drives us to explore. Perhaps recognizing the limits is the first step, challenging yourself to break them is the next. The Ancient Greeks had written stories of a land called Hyperborea, the land beyond the North Wind, the land where it was always warm, where the sun shone all day long, where the Muses always sang and where there was no pain, suffering or old age. This land however, as Pindar tells us, cannot be reached by ship nor road. I like to think of Hyperborea as that light of human potential that shines from beyond the horizon, not as a physical place, but as a state of mind, one that we can only reach by breaking through all the self imposed constraints, imaginary limitations, fears and anxieties. The road to Hyperborea lies within all of us, and it is up to us to find it.

When Napoleon was marching his troops to Italy, he faced the seemingly insurmountable mountain range of the Alps blocking his way. While his soldiers were wary, he was not deterred in the slightest, boldly remarking that for Napoleon, “there shall be no Alps”, and marched his troops straight over into Italy.

Published August 2012

Receive site updates and recommen­dations to exceptional books that will challenge your thinking on a wide range of topics including design, art, history and philosophy. Enter your email below: