I learned a new term today: the adjacent possible.
This term comes from Stuart Kauffman’s 2002 theory of biological development and has run the usual distance from hard science to technology and theories of social change. (See Wired‘s 2010 feature with Kevin Kelly and Steven Johnson on creativity and innovation.)
The adjacent possible is the space just next-door to our present cognitive location, the space where, from our current vantage point, we can perceive and understand something that’s new, but not so unfamiliar we read it as foreign and worth resisting.
If you have no history of budgeting and prefer to wing your way through the month’s spending, the adjacent possible might be writing down the amount of a bill right after you pay it. If you can do that next doable thing with each bill through the month, then by the end of the month, you’ll have the start of a budget.
If, like I did earlier this year, you’ve stalled on your writing process, the adjacent possible might be committing to at least 10 minutes of writing per day after something you already do, and celebrating your achievement every time you complete 10 minutes.
The question isn’t the quality of writing. What’s important is that you write as intended. So the next doable thing creates momentum: over the last month, I’ve found it hard to stop at 10 minutes, and if I must, I want to come back to it.
This concept may apply to learning and social change too. When I’m explaining an unfamiliar idea to someone in a tutorial or a presentation, the adjacent possible holds ideas that are related to their current area of mastery and just a stretch or two beyond that. It can be a dance to avoid pushing too far, and it’s always clear when I have!
But in social systems that are based on the continuing oppression of any minoritized group (i.e. all of them?), it can seem that any stretch leaps beyond the adjacent possible and sends the status quo into violent resistance.
We hear moderate appeals “not to rush progress” and to “give the leaders the benefit of the doubt” because, though tied to the way things are, and in some cases financially invested, “they’re doing their best to make changes that will stick!”
It’s hard to square these theories of learning with the human costs that patience exacts from real people. And tonight I can’t square them, even if I realize they’re probably right.