Ideas from your personal adjacent possible

What you can do with one thing is limited, but add one thing to another and you multiple the possibilities. Add yet another thing to those and the possibilities multiply dramatically. For every dot you add to a network, the network grows in complexity.

You can do a few things with a plain single sheet of paper, for example. You can fold it in various ways, tear it, wad it up, etc.

But when you add a pencil to the mix, suddenly you can do all of those things and a great deal more: you can draw, take notes and create poetry, add expressions to origami animals, capture thoughts, etc.

Add tape to the mix and you multiple the possibilities further still: now the possibilities of what you create has evolved, you can tear pieces of the paper and tape them together again to create more complex things, you can use tape to create mechanical actions, and so on.

We can multiply what’s possible with a regular sheet of paper by modifying attributes of it as well. We don’t have to add another, different object to the mix. Think about what’s possible with a car-sized sheet of paper vs. a notebook sized one. With an airport hanger-sized sheet of paper you could fold yourself a house! What about the color of the paper too? A green sheet of paper could be torn to look like grass while a black sheet of paper could be folded into a pair of cool sunglasses.

The point is this: any single addition or change to a thing creates new possibilities. In research this is known as the “adjacent possible.”

In his phenomenal book, Where Good Ideas Come From, author Steven Johnson defines the adjacent possible as one of the six critical components that generate good ideas. He explains: “Good ideas are…inevitably, constrained by the parts and skills that surround them. …What the adjacent possible tells us is that at any moment the world is capable of extraordinary change, but only certain changes can happen.”

In an article for The Wall Street Journal, titled The Origins of Good Ideas Johnson writes:

“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.”

What Johnson goes on to explain in his book is that the adjacent possible is always expanding, always growing. With each new innovation, each new discovery out in the world, new possibilities become available.

This is true for personal creativity just as much as it is in global innovation. The more we discover and the more we add to our mix of “things we can work with” the more we uncover what’s possible.

These things may seem trivial, but the importance of adding one small thing to the tools we use or the resources we refer to at any given moment, dramatically increases what’s possible. Like that sheet of paper, our ideas can become vastly more powerful if we change one feature of them or add something new to the mix (often something we may not be able to fathom right now, in this moment).

When we find ourselves stuck or limited, adding one thing–no matter how small or trivial it seems– multiplies what’s possible.

This helps explain the value of opening up a new book, traveling somewhere new, or even trying something you haven’t tried before. Those things open up new possibilities in your mind by adding something onto your mental tower of concepts and ideas.

To get unstuck, or to think creatively in general, look for ways to increase the adjacent possible for your work or way of thinking. Add something new to the mix, try to surprise yourself.

Photo by Niklas Morberg.