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The Adjacent Possible

Steven Johnson

The adjacent possible influences your work, relationships, and career success in ways you probably haven’t thought of. Are you working on expanding your adjacent possible?

Video Summary

My Summary/Outline

  1. Paris Stephanie Tarnier
    1. Chicken coop -> newborn incubator to cut the mortality rate in half
      1. A long chain of ideas: capturing animals for food/livestock -> what if animals could be entertainment (zoos) -> chicken coop in the zoo
      2. Combined with: let’s eat that thing that chickens lay -> how do we increase their number (incubator) -> zoos
    2. Developed world the incubators break & ppl can’t fix them because they’re too different from what they know -> let’s create it out of parts they already have there and know how to fix (automobile parts)
  2. “We have a natural tendency to romanticize breakthrough innovations, imagining momentous ideas transcending their surroundings, a gifted mind somehow seeing over the detritus of old ideas and ossified traditions. But ideas are works of bricolage; they’re built out of that detritus. We take the ideas we’ve inherited or that we’ve stumbled across and we jigger them together into some new shape.”
  3. Adjacent possible: all the “states or places” we can get to from where we’re currently at.
    1. It’s a house that gets bigger with every room you open. As you open each door, you see a room with more doors, that lead to rooms with more doors that lead to places you couldn’t reach from where you started.
    2. Based on the evolutionary idea of the adjacent possible.
      1. Atoms -> H2O -> one cell carbon based life forms -> multi cell life forms -> etc until we reach to humans
  4. The multiple- Many brilliant ideas often occur to many people around the world working completely separately from each other.
    1. Sunspots: four scientists in 4 dif countires
    2. Electrical battery by 2 people
    3. Isolating oxygen in the air by 2 people
    4. Require previous ideas to develop new ones.
      1. EX: to isolate oxygen you needed to:
        1. Know that you’re looking for something in teh air
        2. Advanced scales
        3. Once the above conditions are met, it’s a matter of time until we reach a new idea
  5. Technological and scientific advances rarely break out of the adjacent possible. However, sometimes people have ideas that jump 50 years ahead of their time
    1. Those ahead of their time ideas end up being short term failures
      1. Analytical engine designed in early 19th century by Charles Babbage
        1. Basically a computer, but it was way ahead of its time
        2. Wasn’t in the adjacent possible because it required parts not known yet and if they built it using their current knowledge it’d be too slow
  6. All of us live in our own version of the adjacent possible:
    1. Organizations, work, our capabilities, relationships, etc
  7. “Challenging problems don’t usually define their adjacent possible in a clear, tangible way. Part of coming up with a good idea is discovering what those spare parts are, and ensuring that you’re not just recycling the same old ingredients.”