I’ve been noticing that much of the advice being bandied about by the guys trying to help us ordinary folks improve our dud-ly selves is to reach for innovation, to grab onto the Creativity Rocket and hang on for the sure-to-be-exciting but sometimes silly (and possibly dangerous) ride.
For example, vlogger John Spencer published this YouTube video in 2016 that tells us, “We Need a Bigger Definition of Creativity.”
Everyone who studies on these things will tell you that the world-in-all-its-glory is capable of extraordinary change.
Us humans, as the pushiest parts of this world and the ones most likely to move things around and tinker and build and re-purpose stuff, are all nascent agents of change, they tell us.
And they are right.
BUT, ARE YOU SURE YOU WANT TO BE A CHANGE-AGENT?
There’s just one problem with all that: Change-agents are very often disruptive sorts.
They don’t mean to be. They’re just exploring their own fascinations and pursuing their own obsessions.
However, they do tend to confuse and upset and irritate people who are just going along and getting by. They rock the boats of the ones who are liking the way the world is already set up just the way it is.
Change-agents can be especially unpopular with people whose power is based on the world being how it is.
Change-agents are likely to be the guys who get ridiculed and vilified and stomped down by their peers and the others around them.
If their ideas are particularly change-making, change-agents are the ones who end up getting denounced from assorted pulpits and beat up by fearful mobs of folks or burned at the stake by the ones who don’t like the possibilities to which the new ideas point.
This may make you uneasy.
It is also why people who are inclined to be innovative are admonished that they do need to learn how to connect better with the people around them.
This helps them find other people for whom the fascination of where the next new idea will take them is exciting.
Being a change-agent is lot more fun when you hang out with others who are also looking to change the world…or who are at least willing to change their mind.
WHEN AN IDEA IS “AHEAD OF ITS TIME”
Ideas and ways of walking and doing things that are very much more “advanced” or just very different than what has gone before are likely to meet resistance of every kind.
Infant ideas that are “ahead of their time” often get killed off before they can turn into anything tangible.
Either the necessary supporting technology is not yet part of the agreed-upon consensus-world that the change-agents share with the other people around them or else the prevailing, existing mindsets just can’t take in (much less digest) these new baby ideas and squishes them flat.
When these very good change-inducing ideas get re-discovered by innovative sorts living in friendlier times, the things take off running, dragging the whole reluctant, resistant world along.
This happens in science and technology; in art, music, literature, theater, fashion, design, and the rest of the creative milieu; in the business and working world; and in the lifestyles of people who work on transforming themselves into something other than what they used to be.
The whole point of knowing this is that you can aim yourself at looking for the “ideas whose time is now”, ideas that excite many other people in the world.
Perhaps one of those ideas will take you to the new places that will ring the world’s chimes.
THE ADJACENT POSSIBLE
In 2002, physician and theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman (a free-thinker who has a tendency to confuse the heck out of a lot of his more mundane colleagues) figured out and developed a mind-map of the way real change works in the natural world.
Kauffman’s work was so esoteric and bound up in the evolutionary changes that occur in his unique mash-up, interdisciplinary world of biology, physics and astronomy that it had to be explained to us ordinary folks by science writer Steven Johnson in his 2010 book, WHERE GOOD IDEAS COME FROM: The Natural History of Innovation.
As Johnson explains, Kauffman discovered a theory that he called the “Adjacent Possible.”
Basically, what the thing says is that at any given moment the world is capable of extraordinary change, but only CERTAIN changes can actually happen.
What determines which changes CAN happen is the fact that other, supporting changes to a particular situation have already happened.
And then, if new changes happen because of the work the change-agent puts into making his or her new idea tangible and if others continue iterating and developing the idea, then other “adjacent possible” changes become available and so on.
“The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore these boundaries. Each new combination ushers new combinations into the adjacent possible,” says Johnson.
Think of it as a house that magically expands with each door you open.
You begin in a room with four doors, each leading to a new room you have not visited yet. These four rooms contain what Kauffman calls “the adjacent possible.”
So you open one of those four magic doors.
You stroll (or possibly sneak) into the new room that appears when you open that door and you notice that in that room there are three or more other new doors you can open.
Repeat the process and you come to another room with more doors.
Each of these doors is way the heck and gone across this very large room and each one of those doors leads to yet another brand-new room….and so on.
The mind-boggle is that you would not have been able to reach any of the possible brand-new rooms from your original starting point.
If you keep opening doors, who knows where you might end up?
One interesting riff on the way the world has been disrupted by all the ones who are busily exploring the adjacent possible was published by Heidrick and Struggles International.
The company says they are “a premier provider of senior level Executive Search, Culture Shaping and Leadership Consulting services.” (The capitals are all theirs.)
The factoids they present in their video, “A Disrupted World,” are amazing.
This video is particularly interesting because it shows the mindset of one of the top headhunter companies in the world….a definite indication that exploring the adjacent possible is an especially valuable way of walking.
CHANGE HAPPENS STEP BY STEP
The thing to remember in all this door-opening and wandering around in the weird places you discover behind all those doors is that most real changes are a gradual process.
The thing just keeps trundling along: If this happens, then that can happen. When that happens, then this next thing becomes possible and can happen.
All you have to add is water – your blood, your sweat, and your tears. (The changes you’d like to see probably doesn’t come with zippy high-velocity elevators and escalators.)
You can, of course, choose to step off a very high cliff, figuring that you’ll build wings on the way down. After all, that looks like a great short-cut and you’re creative, right? Sure….
I have to tell you, though, this is not a really good survival strategy — especially if you have the mechanical know-how of a toad and no floating workshop or friendly flying dragon or roc who will rescue you from your Stupid.
HACKING THE ADJACENT POSSIBLE STARTS AT THE THRESHOLD
Unlocking a new door and bravely going where nobody has gone before (and surviving to tell the tale) is tricky. Ask any Trekkie. They’ll tell ya.
Basically, you need to figure out ways to explore the edges of the possibilities that now surround you once you get the durned door open.
This can be as simple as changing the physical environment you work in, cultivating a specific kind of social network, or maintaining certain habits in the way you do your work or play your way.
From there you can develop the skills you’ll need to take you to the next level and beyond.
Be aware that you will probably have to shovel out manure and sort through mountains of “nope-doesn’t-work.”
Be aware that there are cliffs and thorns and probably hungry predators in this brave new world of yours.
In the middle of this process of exploring the adjacent possibles you encounter, you may have to re-think your expectations and aspirations and re-vamp your mind-maps yet again in the face of the “not-yet-possible” which is the shadow-side of all this playing around with possibility.
You might also find an utterly amazing adjacent possible that grabs you and everybody else around you by the throat.
As you get good at navigating through the adjacent possibles in your world, you may even figure out how to use those navigational skills to further your dream in more tangible ways.
Here are some cogent thoughts on that by engineer-turned-deep-thinker and skill-development coach Yazan Hijazi in his 2017 video, ‘Innovation vs Creativity Demystified.”
Hijazi explains the difference and the relationship between innovation and creativity beautifully.
Creativity, he says, is getting lots and lots of ideas. Innovation is about making some of these ideas real and getting people to buy into them or adopt them.
Hijazi tells you innovation comes in two flavors: “incremental” and “disruptive.” He explains what they are, what they do and what they are for.
In the video he explains how you can use these two types of innovation to explore the edges of the adjacent possibles that surround you (and how to survive and thrive while doing it).
THE DOING IS ALL THERE IS
One of my favorite books is A PATH OF MASTERY: Lessons on Wing Chun and Life from Sifu Francis Fong by Jim Brault.
In it, Brault reminds us, “In nature growth is gradual. It takes time, it can’t be forced.”
He asks, “Why are you in such a hurry anyway? Don’t worry if it takes a long time to learn. The longer it takes to learn, the longer it will stay with you.”
When you’re playing around with possibilities, it’s good to remember that you have to be able to take action, to do things. More importantly, you need to learn what to do and what not to do and when.
Learning about how you can do what you want to do is what gets you through that magical room you’re facing and how you get to the next door.
A VISION OF WONDER
This next video, published by The Culture Marketing Council in 2015, is a treat. It features film-maker, public speaker and television personality Jason Silva, who The Atlantic dubbed “A Timothy Leary of the Viral Video Age.” Enjoy!
Here’s a poem:
It seems to me always
That there are levels
And levels and levels.
And when you’ve slogged
Your way to the top of one,
And mastered every step along the way,
You find that you are standing
On the threshold of yet another
That beckons you to enter into
Other wonders, other nows.
Sometimes you stand there
At this next gateway and sigh,
Knowing that again here is the choice:
You can stay where you are
And be a master, strong and whole,
The one on whom others depend,
Or you can step across the line
And lose it all, become an egg,
A useless chick, fresh-hatched,
Peeping and cheeping potentiality.
And that next step
Is the hardest one to take.
It’s not easy, sloughing off
The tried, the true.
And it’s a painfulness to lose
The you that you have made,
An impregnable mountain tower,
High above the world,
A beacon shining, beckoning,
And leading the way.
It’s through the birth canal again you go,
So it’s no wonder if you take it kind of slow.
By Netta Kanoho
Header photo credit: “Exploration” by Riccardo Cuppini via Flickr [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]
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