10x Curiosity
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10x Curiosity

Serendipity and the Adjacent Possible

Why do many great ideas get discovered at almost the same time? How can you cultivate serendipity and move into the adjacent possible with your work?

Photo by Juhasz Imre from Pexels

Why do many great ideas get discovered at almost the same time?

Examples include -

Steven Johnson explores this concept in his book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. Most innovations he suggests are the natural consequence, or evolution, of other existing innovations combined with one another in new and interesting ways, hence the reason simultaneous discoveries are often made. As an example, it is not until a breakthrough improvement in the microscope was made that biologist everywhere could study life forms previously unseen to the naked eye. It is not a surprise that many people with the same microscope now make similar discoveries. The same is true of theories as technology improvement. Einstein’s theory of relativity opened a whole new world of adjacent possibility’s from which to explore.

Writing in Forbes, Saul Kaplan says:

Most innovation isn’t about inventing anything new but merely the recombination of what already exists in new ways to solve a problem or deliver new value. Everything we need to innovate is in our sandbox and can be found at the edges between our sectors, disciplines, and silos. Getting better faster is all about exploring the adjacent possible.

I believe we can unleash the adjacent possible by creating the conditions for more random collisions of unusual suspects. We spend far too much time hanging out with usual suspects, people exactly like us. We don’t learn anything new that way.

There are a couple of interesting concepts here I’d like to explore.

The first is the recognition that in order to be able to move into the adjacent possible your development and discoveries come from the space just beyond your current levels of experience and knowledge. The logical inference from this, is that the more you can widen your experiences and knowledge the wider your adjacent possibilities can expand and the more likely you are to be able to come up with something novel, new and wonderful. The pursuit of expanding your knowledge is the key to innovation, not the pursuit of innovation itself!

Cal Newport highlights through his work how you need to develop specialised skills to get to the edge of possibility, for it is here that you can begin to explore the really interesting work that will make a difference in the world. It is a lot of hard deliberate work to get there — that is why not many people do it. But if you do it will set you apart and make you stand out in the world.

Most people simply lack the comfort with discomfort required to tackle really hard things.

At some point, in other words, there’s no way getting around the necessity to clear your calendar, shut down your phone, and spend several hard days trying to make sense of the damn proof.

Cal Newport

Dan Sullivan asks — what is the single thing that you can do to keep you excited and fascinated for the rest of your life ? Start by thinking about what it is not and slowly narrow your focus from there.

The other concept related to this is the one of serendipity. That is the idea that you just happened to be in the right place at the right time to be able to capitalise on something you are uniquely able to achieve. Some would call it luck but I believe this can be cultivated in a similar way to how you move into the adjacent possible. There are many sayings that acknowledge this — my favourite being from Luois Pasteur who said

Luck favours the prepared mind

The concept of cultivating serendipity forms the justification of many workplace redevelopments — how do you get random people bumping into each other and creating magic. Both Apple and Google have tried this through office layouts that encourage everyone to pass through common locations — eating areas, grand entrances etc. Tony Hseih, the founder of Zapos shoes, take this concept to a new level actively tracking his “collision hours” — the amount of time he is out and about and able to be stimulated by external people outside his normal circle of business associates.

William C Taylor writes in his book “Simply Brilliant How Great Organizations Do Ordinary Things in Extraordinary Ways

Hsieh takes the power of collisions seriously — and literally. If he can attract ten thousand new residents into his sixty-acre neighbourhood, he figures, he can create an ecosystem that enables “one hundred thousand collisionable hours per acre per year.” One of his favourite exercises is to calculate how “collisionable” he is personally. Hsieh estimates that he is out and about in Fremont East three to four hours per day, seven days a week, for the forty weeks of the year he is not traveling on Zappos business.

That’s “one thousand collisionable hours per year” — all sorts of chances to meet new people, connect people who should meet one another, listen to pitches that deserve support, learn about trends in fashion, software, or Web design, and engage in other “opportunities for serendipitous encounters.”

Cultivating serendipity and the adjacent possible — you can set up processes to be deliberate about this.

The Adjacent Possible..

Just beyond your current knowledge, lies a world of novelty

only available to you. Your unique life filters


to look at something in a new way.

The more you expand your current knowledge, the broader your adjacent possible field spreads.

The greater your odds of being lucky,

of joining the dots like no- one else has.

Be deliberate about cultivating your knowledge,

relentless about soaking in more and pushing your boundaries,


seeing where serendipity leads you in the adjacent possible.

More like this….



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Tom Connor

Always curious - curating knowledge to solve problems and create change