The ‘adjacent possible’ is a theory originally put forward by Stuart Kauffman about how biological systems gradually morph into more complex systems. Obviously, it has the potential for universal application. Organisms move from chaos toward order, toward organization and complexity. That includes us.
I got a bike for my seventh birthday. It had pink and white streamers shooting from the handlebars. It had a big pink banana seat. It was immaculate, largely because I wasn’t quite big enough to ride it yet. I would have my dad carry it downstairs to the parking lot, where I would stand on the curb and mount my steel steed. I would gingerly reach down with one leg and teeter on my tippy toes. If I was very careful, I could balance there. Months went by, my skeleton grew, my legs got longer, and suddenly I was big enough to RIDE! My mom held onto the seat, and off I went. Eventually, I outgrew the pink bike, and it went to the four younger daughters of a family friend. What began as ‘no bike’ and a group of tiny girls expanded into a circle of possibility that ended with five bicycling females. At least one of those tiny girls could never get enough asphalt, and she became a marathon runner.
Wherever we stand, there are roads raying out in every direction. Every intersection leads to another, as I learned the day I tried to drive from Santa Rosa to San Jose and wound up in Hollister. Sometimes the adjacent possible is appealing, and we quickly expand into it. Maybe we’re introduced to a new cuisine and each new dish is tastier than the last. Other times, the adjacent possible is more of a cautionary tale, and we want to move away from it. Maybe what’s closest to our current square on the game board is something like divorce or bankruptcy or rehab or surgery. Often, we can’t see anything adjacent to our position that seems desirable at all. We can imagine possibilities that intrigue us, but we have no idea how to jump to them.
The adjacent possible is a party balloon. It starts out floppy and flat, one among many in a dime-store bag. As the balloon is inflated, it expands, and then the party can really start. I’ve always done my best to fill my personal balloon with as much hot air as possible. (Little joke for you there).
The idea is to always be moving into new territory, expanding what’s possible. Any time we learn a new skill, it expands our abilities. Any time we make a new friend, that’s a chance to learn how another person sees the world. It’s also a chance to meet that person’s friends. Every time we cast aside negative old beliefs, it creates an opportunity to experience different attitudes and outlooks. Every time we resolve persistent old problems, we free up the energy we need to explore and open ourselves to whatever we’ve been missing in the world.
It’s funny how often we see the adjacent possible and refuse to jump into it. I have had the identical conversation with several different people who complain that they have all the qualifications for a particular job, except for a college degree. Usually, they have a certain number of credit-hours already. In many cases, they’re only one term away, and they could have that degree in just a few months. It sounds like it would quickly pay for itself; what’s the holdup? It seems that resentment and aggrieved entitlement have a tendency to sour us, making what should be the obvious next step into some kind of unfair capitulation. Another way to look at it is that getting a degree teleports us into a different spot on the game board, where we can access a sector of adjacent possibility that isn’t available from our old square.
Games have rules. If you want to be a pilot, you have to meet certain requirements and follow certain regulations. If you want to succeed in roller derby, you have to show up and wear certain equipment. If you want to do so much as bake a batch of cookies, you have to turn on the oven and mix a particular ratio of ingredients. Learning and understanding the rules is like having the secret password of the door into the adjacent possible. You may have all the charm and intelligence and raw talent, you may have been born for this enterprise, but if you don’t follow the rules and work the steps, you won’t get through. This is why we often feel that other people have unfair advantages or don’t deserve their success: they showed up and did the steps, even though they may have lacked other important qualities.
The only reason to worry about what other people are doing is to figure out how they did what they did. Otherwise, our only jobs are to wish them well and leave them in peace. We don’t usually know what other people’s lives looked like before this moment, or what their inner lives are like. We hate it when other people judge us. The only way to stop this vicious cycle is for each of us to start judging ourselves instead. We have to try to live the values we wish others would, to drive the way we wish others would drive, to greet others with the gaze we want them to direct our way.
Smile or frown; the adjacent possible will be completely different depending on which you pick in any moment. Whether we speak multiple languages, learn to dance or sing or play an instrument, has the potential to open entire new worlds. I had a guitar I couldn’t play in my college dorm, and it always surprised me how many of my guests both could and would play it. It showed me a new side to my friends. Imagine the adjacent possibilities that might have come into being if I had learned to play it myself, or asked one of my friends to teach me. I couldn’t play guitar, but I could ballroom dance. I taught the merengue to a musician friend one night. I later heard that his screwball antics on the dance floor caught the eye of his future bride. He was a “yes” person, open to the adjacent possible, and one “yes” led to another.
The adjacent possible isn’t restricted. We can bring others with us. Every time we make a positive choice, it widens the door. Someone is always watching. Whether we poison the atmosphere with pessimism, criticism, contempt, and insults, whether we always quit and call ourselves names, we’re making a difference. We’re role models whether we stay home and give in to our perceived limitations or whether we dedicate ourselves to a thousand fumbling attempts. Those who learn from our example may surpass us. They may point to us as role models, we may blush to hear it, but we can’t argue with it. Inspiration comes from surprising places.
From the time I could first walk, I always wanted to expand my geographical territory. The adjacent possible was, for me, a matter mostly of sidewalk squares and crosswalks. Others may find that their natural path is one of hugs, handshakes, and inviting smiles, as they seek to meet new friends and learn more names. Others are going to look to books, tools, or art supplies. What I started learning was that the adjacent possible can also be seen as strategic positioning. What can I change that opens up the broadest vistas? Over time, what I chose was to get the degree, increase my earning power, and develop a lean, strong physique. Life as an educated, fit person with money is like being lifted off one game board and placed on another board entirely. I played the game of being broke and frail, and it’s a pretty boring game. More people are willing to play the new game.
I’m still working on the adjacent possible in my world, and I’ll never stop. I ran a marathon, which was great, but what interests me more is that it made me strong enough to take up backpacking. It took a while, but now I can carry the tent, stove, and all the other gear I need to be self-sufficient for at least four days. As my next step, I have made arrangements to learn how to light a fire without matches. The independence I am learning from backpacking has helped build my confidence as I tackle one of my greatest fears, which is public speaking. It may take years, but if I can eventually build a real comfort level with public speaking, new fields of adjacent possibility will open up to me. Maybe I’ll do a TED Talk and tell a story about how I went to the woods and started a fire without matches. Neither of those things are possible from where I am now – but they could be.
Where are you on the game board of life? What is the adjacent possible for you? Look around. There’s probably more than you had noticed. Why not stretch a bit and take over some adjoining squares? How about where you’d like to be – can you see it from where you are? The adjacent possible is always growing, blossoming into being, making a bigger, more interesting world for everyone around it.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.