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The Cowboy, The Composer & The Adjacent Possible- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

The Cowboy, The Composer & The Adjacent Possible- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

The Cowboy, The Composer & The Adjacent Possible


The concept of the adjacent possible can seem very abstract and inaccessible to many people.

Sure, maybe it’s an appealing take on the evolutionary process in nature, but how can it make a difference in *my* life, particularly my creative life? 

Doesn’t evolution only benefit my descendants?

There are numerous times when we have no idea what we’re going to write about. This is one of them. (Other times it is planned well in advance).


You Can Start Anywhere


We’ve found the key is to “just start,” an entreaty you’ve heard before if you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time.


One Foot In The Known, One Foot In The Unknown 


This reminds us of a story of one of our frequent virtual guests—Richard Feynman.

He was once asked how he was so quick with rough calculation.

He found that after working through enough calculations in detail, most new calculations were similar to ones he had done before. There was an underlying structure. He could then pull up the relevant computation from memory and modify appropriately.

It was adjacent to something well-known.


Richard Feynman

Richard Feynman


Just Start


Writing, art, music, and other creative processes can be like that as well.

After you have made many starts, your mental arena is full of your creations, and you will always be close to at least one, no matter which direction you go. 

Militarily inclined folks call this a “target-rich environment,” but our goal is not to destroy things but to create them.

Now this is starting to sound like “adjacent.” 

Even if you don’t know where you’re going, just start, and you’ll be adjacent to something you’ve done before. 


If you can resist the temptation to just copy something familiar from yourself or someone else, you’ve got a powerful path for expanding your repertoire while remaining anchored in your legacy.


Organ Recitals, Repertoire & Adjacency


Bruce has used this concept in his musical performance career – For years, he would work up an entire program of 6-8 new pieces for an organ recital. 

After enough of those, he settled on a new plan:  He would play pieces he had played before except for two new ones in each concert. This way the repertoire grew every time, but he had the confidence and experience that came from being rooted in familiarity. 


Dutch Dikes


It was like a favorite example of ours—the Dutch clawing land from the sea, one diked enclosure at a time for centuries, each one adjacent to already claimed land.


Noordoostpolder by Sentinel-2 satellite


Reverse Feedback & Mutability


There was also a kind of reverse feedback in Bruce’s music, where the new pieces might illuminate the “old friends” in a new light, creating performance insights.

Bruce’s musical history turned out to be mutable, and a piece could change its interpretation and significance over time, the past constantly being rewritten.


A Bluebird


An example for today about the Adjacent Possible, from music this time.

The modern choral composer Eric Whitacre had an inauspicious beginning. He grew up in Reno, Nevada, hardly a cosmopolitan center for new music. His first organized musical experience was in a junior high school marching band.


Eric Whitacre conducting


He aspired to become a techno-pop rock star, playing synthesizers in a band, a 21st century Rick Wakeman.  

At the urging of friends (who informed him that choirs were good places to find attractive women) he begrudgingly tried out a chorus rehearsal in college at the University of Nevada Reno, even though he couldn’t read music.


Music Speaks In Colors 


He later said his life transformed from black and white to vivid color (synesthesia is everywhere, a subspecies of the adjacent possible) at that first choral rehearsal. 

Not only did he enjoy singing music, he thought he’d try his hand writing some as well, to honor one of his teachers.

He turned out to be quite good at it, and it bought him a ticket from Reno to Juilliard. Things cascaded after that.

Perhaps the advice about women was accurate as well, as he has been married to two opera singers in his life.

This improbable path was only possible by being open to the nearby and unfamiliar, the adjacent possible.

His path was not at all inevitable, or perhaps only in hindsight.

Sometimes it pays to look backwards for insight as well as looking forwards, because adjacency works in time as well as space.


With gratitude from my studio to yours,



P.S. Speaking of The Adjacent Possible- our Studio Journey Masterclass is now OPEN. 

Check it out HERE. 


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