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The Adjacent Possible-Nancy Hillis MD-You can start anywhere

The Adjacent Possible- Nancy Hillis MD- You can start anywhere

Creativity & The Adjacent Possible

Hi there, we’re back with the second foundational concept for creativity, and that is the adjacent possible. This is a concept from evolutionary biology described by doctors Bruce Sawhill and Stuart Kauffman at the Santa Fe Institute.

This scientific concept describes how each action you take in a dynamic and evolving environment changes not only your perspective but also the environment that you’re in. It creates new possibilities that didn’t exist before.

This is so exciting, and I think that the adjacent possible is the essence of creativity.

But the adjacent possible matters little unless you’re aware of its existence.

I believe that the creative impulse can be subtle and easily missed or dismissed.

Remember a time when you had an experience in your life where something astonishing or transformative happened that you didn’t know was possible beforehand.

It’s the moment when you get a hunch when you hear this whispering in your ear, and this hunch may come from an entirely different experience, such as observing nature or playing the cello or talking with friends or reading a book. You never know when it’s going to show up.

Something new appears in your life and it initiates a sequence of events, and it’s up to you to say yes to this and allow this new experience or these new things to enter your life and your art.

The adjacent possible is the idea that your act of searching in your art not only allows you to find the next step, it creates it.

A particular move or brushstroke or exploration opens up the possibility of the the adjacent possible, which is brought about by action. What we want to do is keep exploring.

We want to keep stepping into the unknown in our art and life and experimenting as we go, searching and going deeper into the adjacent possible.

We’re searching for something, and we’re not sure what it is. We’re searching for whatever is going to emerge in this creation, and we’re allowing ourselves to be surprised by whatever that is.

So the search and this state of searching opens up the next possibility.

It’s only by searching and making that move, that decision, that brush stroke that creates the new possibility which wouldn’t have been there if you hadn’t searched and taken that step into the unknown.

So it’s about searching and acting and responding to it and seeing where it goes.

It’s continually evolving your work and not repeating yourself in your art.

And finally, and perhaps most importantly, it’s important to make room for surprise.

This is about being surprise-able.

There’s a German phrase lass ‘was einfallen which translates to let something fall in. So it’s a state of allowing- allow something new to fall in that you couldn’t predict otherwise.

What use is the adjacent possible of surprise, of learning and wonder if there’s no time or space to take advantage of it?

You must cultivate an attitude of being surprise-able. This is part of it. What if a universe of possibilities is always there and all we have to do is open our eyes and our hearts to allow it in?

We’re swimming in an ocean of possibilities and mostly unaware of it. Winston Churchill said:


Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing had happened


So it’s easily missed and dismissed.

We easily miss these surprise moments, so we’ve got to be open and aware and allowing every mark you make on your canvas, every sentence you write, every move in your choreography creates the next possibility.

The evolutionary concept of the adjacent possible is analogous to what happens to you on your artist’s journey.

Another way to think about this, or to imagine it, is that:

The act of moving forward creates a new set of next steps that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.

They would have been difficult or practically impossible to predict beforehand.

It’s like a sequence of treasure maps, where each map guides you to a place where a new map is hidden. Now imagine that your act of searching not only allows you to find the next map, it creates it.

It’s the next step. The adjacent possible to your emerging work.

And it’s vital to you is an artist and creator. Just as in reading a book, what keeps you reading is not knowing what’s coming next and wanting to find out how it all turns out.

I’ll see you soon.

With gratitude from my studio to yours,




P.S. If this lesson is compelling to you, you’ll love the Creativity Immersion Program where we explore 5 pillars of creativity as well as Creativity Prompts. This program is complimentary when you purchase my new book: The Artist’s Journey Creativity Reflection Journal. 


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