Imagine a room with four doors and no windows. You know what’s behind the door you just came through, but the others? Mysteries.
The adjacent possible is the first of Steven Johnson’s eight factors in the creation of good ideas. He describes it as “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.”
And reinvention is the key, in Johnson’s opinion, to good ideas.
He tells the story of eight high tech infant incubators sent to Meulaboh, Indonesia after the 2004 tsunami. Four years later all were out of commission, and no one in Indonesia had access to the replacement parts needed, let alone knew how to repair them.
For infant incubators to work in the developing world, the machines had to be devised of readily available parts and had to break in ways that could be fixed locally. And while these towns in Indonesia may not have had computers or even electricity, they did have cars, and they were able to keep those cars running. The solution? NeoNurture – an infant incubator built entirely from used car parts and powered through a cigarette lighter or a motorcycle battery.
Good ideas, Johnson says, are like the NeoNurture. They’re cobbled together from the pieces of things intended for another purpose, and they’re limited by the pieces they consist of.
When we consider ideas to be ahead of their time, it means they’re built using pieces that don’t exist yet. Or, to return to the room analogy, they’ve skipped through the space beyond one of the three doors and are hovering somewhere two or three rooms down.
In 1837, inventor Charles Babbage finished the plans for what is now recognized as the world’s first programmable computer – a machine capable of reinventing itself to execute the commands envisioned by its programmers. Babbage was more than 100 years ahead of his time. The mechanical gears and switches available in the 1830s worked in theory, but would have been almost impossible to produce and maintain in reality. Babbage needed vacuum tubes and integrated circuits – pieces that didn’t yet exist.
If a good idea is a rearrangement of the pieces available, then multi-passionate people are at a distinct advantage. We have more pieces. When the time comes to lay out the resources available to us, we’re like the magic bag in Mary Poppins – the pieces just keep coming and coming until onlookers start to gawk in amazement.
Yes, there still needs to be some organization to the pieces, and yes, you still need to be able to actually put them together. We’ll be addressing those issues in future segments of this series. For now, just remember that all good ideas must fall into the adjacent possible, and they must be created from pieces that already exist. We can’t control the adjacent possible – it’s a collective knowledge rather than an individual one – but we can control the number of pieces. Multiple passions equals more pieces equals more possibilities.
Do you have a personal example of coming up with a great idea using pieces from your passions? Ever come up with something that fell outside of the adjacent possible? Leave a comment and tell us about it!
This is the first part of a series exploring the ideas in Steven Johnson’s book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation
(Affiliate Link). The series will run bi-monthly for the next few months, so if this article intrigued you, order a copy of the book and read along with us.