The Adjacent Possible

photo (3)A few years ago I read Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson. The book takes a close look at the natural history of innovation in an effort to identify what sparks our great ideas.

In the book he talks about the “adjacent possible”.




“The history of cultural progress is, almost without exception, a story of one door leading to another door, exploring the palace one room at a time.”

In other words, when one door closes, another one opens. This allows you to explore a new space, previously unavailable to you. As an educator and lifelong learner, this is incredibly exciting. It can also be a bit overwhelming, especially when the door was closed unexpectedly by someone else. Relationships end, companies evolve, and friends change. Regardless of how it closed, if you continue to move forward, you allow yourself the opportunity to explore new possibilities.

Last week I had the privilege  of spending the week on a beach in Florida with my parents and 3 kids. I began each morning with a long run along the beach. The first two days were sunny and warm, and I could see for miles as I ran. But the third day a thick, low fog settled in. I could only see about 100 yards in front of me at any given time. For some reason, my run on the third day was much easier than the first two.

Then it hit me. I was enjoying the moment, exploring the adjacent possible as new faces and places came into view. I wasn’t fixated on the end goal which looked so far away on the first two days. I couldn’t see it, but I knew it was there.

Here’s my point. In life, we often times get wrapped up in the long-term vision, becoming overwhelmed thinking about how we are going to get there. It looks so far away, and there is so much to do, so we become paralyzed with fear and indecision. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying you shouldn’t have a long-term vision. It’s essential to know where you are going, but it’s not always going to be along the path you expect. The more you focus on small accomplishments, the more you will open new doors to explore the adjacent possible. Over time, you will be able to connect the dots between the rooms. That’s when the magic happens and great ideas are born.

In the book Creative Confidence, David and Tom Kelley (founders of IDEO and the innovative Stanford warn that “the fear of failure is THE biggest obstacle to creative success”. They define creative confidence as “the ability to see your potential and your place in the world more clearly, unclouded by anxiety and doubt”. Don’t ever let fear or doubt trump your passion. Set a series of small goals and keep in mind that courage is the “accumulation of small steps”. If you waste time focusing your attention on a problem,  you run the risk of missing the opportunity hiding behind it.

Or, as the famous fish Dory once said, “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming!”

Here’s to exploring the adjacent possible.


5 thoughts on “The Adjacent Possible

  1. How timely Ginny! I am getting ready to help lead a big writing professional development with my staff, and this completely applies. As I think ahead to the staffing changes we are looking at, this applies. As I think about how teaching looks so differently with our new standards, this applies. It’s hard to think of a time in my life right now where this doesn’t apply. Thank you!

    • So glad you liked it! Thanks for taking the time to comment! Good luck with the writing PD- I’m sure it will be fantastic.

  2. I often think about things historically, like how my grandfather might have viewed things. I think in today’s world we are pretty goal obsessed. I think it’s a relatively new phenomenon in society. People typically lived life in survival mode which left little time for long term planning. Like you, I don’t dismiss that but I also think we’d all do well just to spend more time living instead of planning. You’ve got such a wonderful family and lots of potential. Your basics are more than covered. It’s a good time to smell roses. Glad you’re thinking about this.

  3. Thanks Dean. I agree. I was just thinking the same thing about goals. I think often times people mistake goals with end results. It’s not about losing weight, it’s about feeling better. It’s not about making more money, it’s about making a difference. If you focus on what really matters, those end results will happen naturally. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  4. Pingback: Introducing iMoveU | Ginny Washburne

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