The Adjacent Possible

A few years ago, there was a meme going around asking people to remember themselves at different ages and to share what they thought they were going to be when they grew up. For me at age four, I was going to be President and a bird-watcher. At ten, I was going to be working in baseball, but on the statistics side of it (I knew my athletic ability would keep me from being the starting second baseman for the New York Yankees). At seventeen, I was going to be a professor of mathematics and number theory. At twenty-eight, I was going to be congregational rabbi. And for the last ten years, I’ve been working on bridging the worlds of religion and science.

When we look back at what we “knew” we were going to be when we were kids, we might feel a variety of emotions – smiling at our naivete, sadness at what could have been, surprise at how life turned out. But while it’s clear that our career almost certainly didn’t turn out precisely as we expected, in retrospect, we can often see a through line of our passions, excitements, and talents. There’s both a broad, unchanging part of who we are and an evolution that unfolds in the details.

This balance of stasis and dynamism is captured in how God describes Godself. When Moses is standing at the burning bush, he asks God for a name. He wants something he can hold onto, something concrete. Instead, God responds, “Ehyeh asher ehyeh” – “I will be what I will be.” God’s name is, by definition, change and unknowability. But it doesn’t mean that the future is totally unpredictable or that there isn’t a link from past to present to future. Rather, perhaps it means that we can see only the next couple of steps in our journey. Instead of trying to predict the distant future, maybe we should focus on the immediate next steps.

Steven Johnson, a historian of ideas, talks about “the adjacent possible” – rather than setting a 5- or 10-year plan, focus on what’s achievable now, and build off of what currently exists. While we may dream of how our initiative will change the world, we are constrained by the current intellectual and technological landscape. As Johnson describes it:

[T]here’s simply no way to invent a microwave oven in 1650, however smart you might be. But somehow, in the middle of the 20th century, the idea of a microwave oven became imaginable, became part of the adjacent possible.

As I wrote in [Where] Good Ideas [Come From], “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.” Each moment in our history unlocks new doors of adjacent possibilities. The trick is to figure out what they are exactly and whether they’re leading us to beneficial places.

We set expectations, benchmarks, and metrics. And they are crucial ways of helping us understand how much our initiative influences and impacts others. But even more important than the big dreams, we need to start with what’s actually doable and see how we take the next step.

One of my favorite lines is from philosopher Soren Kierkegaard: “Life has to be lived forward, but can only be understood backward.” If we can take the next step, to build on the adjacent possible, we’ll be able to look back and see how the pieces of the puzzle fit together. It may not be what we thought was going to happen at first, but if we’re able to celebrate dynamism and change, then “what will be is what will be” can also be a reflection of the Divine.

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