What Experts Are Saying About the Adjacent Possible

The adjacent possible is a theory that has its roots in biology.

But applying its lessons to your career and personal life can yield new insights into the best ways to make important life changes.

I want you to imagine a woman named Carol for a moment.

The Adjacent Possible: Steven Johnson & Stuart Kauffman

Carol is a compliance specialist in the healthcare industry. She gets paid a good amount of money for what she does and gets along decently well with her co-workers. But it’s not really what she wants to do with her life.

Carol has always had a passion for website design. And in particular, website design for photographers, painters, and illustrators. She loves showcasing their work.

Carol would like to make a career change, but she has no idea how to make such a 180 degree move from her current role and industry.

How would you advise Carol?

Let’s hold onto that thought for a moment and delve into today’s topic: the adjacent possible.

(I promise we won’t keep Carol hanging for too long.)

What is the Adjacent Possible?

Steven Johnson has authored eight books that explore the overlap between science, technology, and personal growth (sounds like our type of guy).

Where Good Ideas Come From, one of Johnson’s books on creativity, argues that innovation is a gradual and iterative process. Innovation doesn’t happen in the “eureka” moment of popular imagination, but rather in a slow process of combining and recombining previously existing ideas.


In making his argument, Johnson expands on the concept of the “adjacent possible” to touch on human creativity and innovation broadly. The Adjacent Possible is a term coined by the theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman to explain biodiversity on planet Earth (among other things).

The Adjacent Possible theory suggests that at any given moment in history, biology (or science or society or technology) can only make progress in certain prescribed ways.

If you can imagine a chess or checkers board, it would be like a game where the pieces could only move forward or backward and side-to-side, but not diagonally. You’d have to make two moves if you wanted to get your piece to the diagonal space.

That’s how progress works, according to the Adjacent Possible theory.

Kauffman studied the origin of life and the development of molecules on Earth, so he never really intended the concept to cover progress in general, but that’s where Johnson sees the connection between biology and society.

Here’s Kauffman in his own words on the idea of the Adjacent Possible:

It just may be the case that biospheres on average keep expanding into the adjacent possible. By doing so they increase the diversity of what can happen next. It may be that biospheres, as a secular trend, maximize the rate of exploration of the adjacent possible.

In other words, by moving into more adjacent squares, you increase the possible new squares that you can move into.

Steven Johnson writes in the Wall Street Journal:

The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.

The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore them. Each new combination opens up the possibility of other new combinations.

The message is simple but profound:

Generating new ideas is a process of looking for ideas that are adjacent to ideas that are already out there.

The Adjacent Possible suggests that remote, outlandish ideas can’t be reached until you explore the area in-between first.

In Johnson’s words, the Adjacent Possible “captures both the limits and the creative potential of change and innovation.” It’s both the floor and the ceiling. It represents the opportunities that are always at the edge of our known universe.

This is not a new insight. As human beings, we have always borrowed from other peoples, other cultures, and other disciplines to invent the new. We have always looked to the edge and tried to peer over the side.

Consider that the Adjacent Possible is the principal driver of exploration. The first humans left Africa to the explore the Adjacent Possible of the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. The Americas were the Adjacent Possible of the people who first crossed the Bering Strait and the European settlers who came centuries after.

Democracy was the Adjacent Possible of the Roman republic and the Enlightenment that came before it.

The World Wide Web was the Adjacent Possible of the first networked computers used by the military and universities.

The MP3 player is the Adjacent Possible of the compact disc player and the flash drive.

The smartphone is the Adjacent Possible of the cellular phone, the PDA, and the desktop computer.

And on and on through the centuries.

The Adjacent Possible and You

Let’s get back to Carol. When we left her, she was contemplating a huge career change from being a compliance specialist at a healthcare company to becoming a website designer for visual artists.

So how do we use the Adjacent Possible concept to advise her?

One thing she’d have to realize is that it’s much harder to jump from role A in industry Y to role B in industry Z. That’s like moving diagonally on the imaginary game board we devised above. Instead, she should try to make her career change in two moves.

She could:

  • Volunteer to design the website for her healthcare company, and thus build her portfolio before trying to get work in an entirely different industry, or
  • Offer a service to advise visual artists on legal & compliance issues before seguing into offering website design services.

So what does the Adjacent Possible mean for you and your agile lifestyle?

Personal growth and change is about iteration and evolution. Your career moves and your life changes are often about moving into the Adjacent Possible. Each move opens up the possible territory that you can explore. Continuous self-improvement (or personal kaizen) can be seen as the process of continually expanding and refining your Adjacent Possible.

Personal development is not about retreating to a monastery in some remote location to contemplate the universe. It’s about living your life–your real life–in such a way that maximizes your human potential.

To do that in a lasting way, you must borrow, remix, refine, and recombine the concepts that are already present in your life.

Have you explored the Adjacent Possible in your life? If not, what’s keeping you from breaking out of your comfort zone and expanding your boundaries?

Photo Credit: net_efekt via Compfight cc.

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