One of the miracles of life is when something surprising and new emerges from the inventory of parts that already exist. Perhaps the inventory was combined in a novel way to create something new. Or perhaps the inventory was adapted and applied to a new use. Sometimes the inventory when combined is transformed into a completely new substance like in a chemical reaction.
The point is new creations and insights usually arise from the existing inventory of parts. They are not created out of nothing. Both our minds and nature need inventory to work with in order to create.
The sum total of all new creations, ideas and insights that could potentially emerge from the inventory is called the adjacent possible. The phrase adjacent possible was first used (as far as I am aware) by Stuart Kauffman in describing the biosphere. It was later adopted by Steven Johnson in the idea space.
I love the infinite potentiality the words adjacent possible invoke.
One reason the world is unpredictable as well as endlessly creative is there is unlimited inventory. It is impossible to prestate all the variables, conditions and inventory that comprise the world's adjacent possible.
Because we can't innumerate all of the parts, we don't know what new innovations, wonders or catastrophes the world will experience in the near future.
That is both a fascinating and scary thought.
What about the adjacent possible in our own lives?
Here we have the advantage of being better able to innumerate many of the variables, conditions and inventory of our own adjacent possible. This includes our current roles, resources and strengths.
Contemplating our personal inventory is a type of framing. Instead of hoping for someone "out there" to tell us what we should be doing and help us discover our own Supreme Goods, by focusing inward we can perceive the emerging self that is arising from our own adjacent possible.
How do we do this?
I once attended a week-long writing workshop with Ron Carlson, a brilliant fiction writer and teacher, about his process for writing a story. When he doesn't know what is going to happen next in a story he is working on, he focuses on the inventory.
What are the physical things that have already emerged in the story that he can latch onto?
How are the characters interacting with that inventory with their physical selves?
One of the phrases he shared over and over again in the class is "the truth is in the body."
Truth is revealed by the actions the characters take with their bodies.
Likewise, when when we focus on our own inventory (our roles, resources and strengths) and how we physically interact with those things, then we can discover insights that are emerging from our adjacent possible.
Emerging insight, meaning and purpose is found not by piecemeal focus on each aspect of our lives in isolation.
Otherwise we become like the three blind men in the Jain parable who touch a different part of the elephant and come to opposite conclusions as to what an elephant is like.
Instead we should focus on all of the parts collectively and explore the interrelationships. Then we are in the position to intuitively perceive creative recombinations that lead to something new.
We will discover the following truth:
The wholeness of who we are to become is found within the existing parts of who we already are.
-J.D. Stein | December 2013