Connecting the Seemingly Unconnected

Last week I re-visited a video featuring a gentleman named Ben Cameron. Cameron is a figure more familiar to the non-profit arts world than the commercial realm, but he has an uncanny way of turning our attention towards interesting angles on ordinary things.

After a rousing introduction, Cameron launched into a call to the arts for more engagement with its audiences. One thought he shared hit me like a lightning bolt, and I think it holds a career lesson for all of us: be on the lookout for the “adjacent possible”.

The phrase “adjacent possible” was coined by theoretical biologist Stuart Kaufmann, and popularized by Steven Johnson in his fascinating book, Where Good Ideas Come From. In Cameron’s use of the word, the “adjacent possible” refers to finding something in an “adjacent” area of the economy that may have a “possible” application in yours.

Here’s an example.

 Johann Gutenburg (d. 1468) didn’t invent the printing press by hanging out with calligraphers. He was fiddling with a wine press and coin stamp, and lifted those technologies into a whole new arena: printing using movable type – and, of course, history was forever changed. Books multiplied, as did the desire for literacy among all classes of people, fueling a ‘renaissance’ throughout Europe.

Here’s a more recent example.

Springboard for the Arts in St. Paul, Minnesota has replicated the community shares agricultural model (where you buy a share in a local farm and go once a month to pick up your produce) into an arts context.

Springboard launched a community share for artists. Arts patrons buy shares in the artist community and then go pick up their ‘box of art’ once a month – an event, Cameron says, that is adored by performers, bands, concerts, galleries, and others. Furthermore, he says, the people who obtain their box of art go on to buy from the artists they like, commission additional works, and generally enliven the whole arts community in the process.

An adjacent possible from the agricultural industry lifted over to the performing arts. Who knew?

In Where Good Ideas Come From, Johnson states that the adjacent possible hints at “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.”

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

On a personal level, I feel like I brush the adjacent possible each time I read or write something new. For me, it opens new doors and causes me to see things a little differently than before.

So, what does the Adjacent Possible mean for you and your career?

Career phases and life changes both move us into adjacent possibilities. Each opens up new territory to explore. Continuous self-development can be seen as the process of continually expanding and refining our Adjacent Possible.

Discovering an adjacent possible is very much related to creative thinking, and that means practicing things that will lift us from our various boxes (industries, companies, schools, neighborhoods) in order to see things differently.

So:

At least once a month, consider…

• Attending a networking event                  

• Meeting somebody new in a company that interests you

  • Reading a magazine you’ve never read before, on a topic you know nothing about

At least once every three months, consider…

• Completing a piece of work for your personal or professional portfolio                                 

• Attending an event by a creative wizard or someone who inspires you                                

• Reading a book on a subject you’re interested in but have little knowledge of

At least once every six months, consider…

• Creating something with your hands

• Doing a project collaboratively

• Driving or taking a train to someplace you’ve never been to

Creativity means borrowing, remixing, refining, and recombining the concepts that are already present in life, adjacent to our everyday routines.

Where might your adjacent possible lie? I’d love to hear your ideas.

Peter Spellman is a career transition specialist helping people discover and develop their next calling. Find him at nextcalling.org.