Adjacent Possibilty

A lot of self-help approaches the idea of improving your life from a position of perfect knowledge. This is why “The Secret” and affirmations are weird to me: they require you to have a specific vision filled out in your mind before you can actualize that vision. I think that a more interesting, practical way to pursue life is to spend it learning rather than visualizing exactly where you want to be.

Imagine, for instance, that you are a caveman. You want to be able to summon food at any time, just by asking for it. You can visualize this outcome as much as you want, but it’s just not going to happen. But if you’re a modern-day person in a first-world country, you can probably order a pizza right now that will arrive at your door, piping hot, just by asking. How does this happen? A step at a time, using what Steven Johnson calls The Adjacent Possible in his book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. The idea being that you can only imagine new things based on your experience of older things. Agriculture leads to a constant supply of food, leads to city development, and eventually you have pizza and cars. But no one can invent pizza until bread and cheese are invented–and no one can invent pizza delivery until phones and cars are invented. That’s the adjacent possible.

This is why I believe you have to act your way into the future–and why the bias in the title of this blog is “action experiments” and not “thought experiments”. As Bill Burnett and Dave Evans say early in their book Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life, “Designers don’t think their way forward. Designers build their way forward.”

The process of building your life is messy and incomplete. You try new things and do new things to see what experiments pan out and which don’t. Maybe most importantly, which ideas don’t pan out but are interesting in some way. This gives you the adjacent possible, which give you new ideas for what to do next and how to continue to build your way forward. Sometimes things are created exactly as intended by their creators: the Wright brothers fully intended to create manned flight, for instance. But just as often, maybe more so, innovation is created by accident: penicillin, the microwave, and post it notes are all examples. These innovations were about exploring the adjacent possible: seeing what happens when you actually do something, then seeing which possibilities present themselves after that.

That, in large part, is what I’m trying to do here: build little experiments to try to learn what is supposed to happen next for me. But not thought experiments – action experiments, where I go out and try things.

These action experiments are a low risk, but potentially high-reward system. You’re not going into the army or signing up for a college major, you are just trying one little thing, seeing how you like it, and then going from there. It’s an iterative process, building new ideas from the new adjacent possible. E.L. Doctorow said that “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”  I would argue that life is like that, too. You start with an idea of where you want to go, take a step or two towards that outcome and then take the next step, each step lighting up a new adjacent possibility.   

So to have more ideas you need to look at what’s possible from where you are. One of the ways to discover that is to try things. Try a lot of different things and see where it leads you. You are multi talented. Most humans are: they have a lot of possible lives. They could be happy as a lawyer or refrigerator repairman. People get hung up on passion: Cal Newport believes that passion follows ability. And ability mostly follows a lot of hard work. You get passionate about things that you are good at, so if you get good, you’re going to have passion.

I want to take an experimental mindset into this year. I want to try things, fail, try other things, see how things combine and are different. One of the biggest challenges for me is going to be trying this blog, trying the vlog, trying the podcasts just to see what, if anything, sticks. But I’m not going to know if something is going to resonate unless I try it, unless I put it out there. So this year, for me, is partially about trying new things, putting them out there, and moving on without obsessing. Not doing tons of drafts because the time pressure is higher.

And coming back to the pile of pottery from “Art and Fear”. Just throwing a lot of pots and seeing what happens. Maybe some of them are masterpieces, maybe not. But the way to get to the good stuff is to try a lot of crappy stuff first. I don’t think it’s just sitting there imagining the perfect pot and then trying to make it.

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