The Adjacent Possible: How to Improve Yourself Every Day
During the late 19th century, infant mortality was at a staggering high. One in five babies in Paris died before learning to crawl. The odds for premature babies with low birth weights were far worse.
The invention of the incubator changed all that. Almost immediately, the mortality rate of premature babies kept in an incubator halved. As the design improved, infant mortality plummeted further. Between 1950 and 1998, it fell by a massive 75 percent and became standard equipment in all American hospitals.
But the picture remained bleak in developing countries. Over 100 infants per 1000 die in Liberia and Ethiopia compared to less than 10 per 1000 throughout Europe and the United States. Many premature babies in these countries would’ve survived if they had access to incubators.
Yet, modern incubators pose a series of challenges for developing countries. Their cost, which exceeds $40,000, is the smallest one. When such complex equipment breaks, one needs spare parts and technical expertise to fix them.
Following the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, Meulaboh in Indonesia received eight incubators from various international relief organizations. But by 2008, all eight were out of order. Power surges, tropical humidity, and the hospital staff’s inability to read English instructions had rendered them useless.
The Incubator Made Out of Automobile Parts
For years, a company named Design that Matters had been working on a reliable, less expensive incubator for developing nations. They wanted to design equipment that didn’t just work, but could also be fixed easily if it broke down.
The team had noticed that even in the smallest towns that lacked air conditioning and cable television, automobiles kept running. So it built an incubator called the NeoNurture out of automobile parts.
The NeoNurture looked like a standard incubator from the outside. But inside, sealed-beam headlights warmed the board, dashboard fans filtered the air, door chimes sounded alarms. The device could be charged with an adapted cigarette lighter or a standard motorcycle battery.
One didn’t need medical equipment training to fix the NeoNurture either. They just had to know how to replace a broken headlight or a dashboard fan.
Many people think of improvement in any aspect as a sudden breakthrough. They assume it requires drastic steps similar to buying a $40,000 incubator. But most times, such steps merely lead them back to square one, often with a feeling of demotivation.
- A business buys a piece of expensive software to improve its performance. But the computers to run it are painfully slow, and people lack even basic Excel skills. Within a month, the software lies unused.
- An overweight person adopts a punishing diet, consumes various supplements, and exercises five times to lose weight quickly. But his body lacks the strength to keep up with the sudden decline in calories and spurt in exercise. As a result, he becomes weaker and prone to injury.
- A person aspires to become an author without any writing experience. She begins to write a manuscript but gives up halfway because the size of the task overwhelms her. Or she stows away the completed work because she doesn’t know how to publish it.
Superheroes in Hollywood movies discover their latent potential suddenly and fly away into the atmosphere within minutes. The rest of us are not so lucky. For us, improvement is constrained by our current tools and abilities.
Each time we take action beyond what we’re capable of, we face obstacles we don’t know how to handle. Obviously, we freeze like a deer caught in a car’s headlight and give up quickly. We aim for the moon, but instead of landing on the roof, we fall into the abyss below.
Genuine improvement doesn’t mean we must “Go Big or Go Home.” It means we must use the tools we currently have to the best of our abilities. This lets us explore our boundaries, and those boundaries extend into “the adjacent possible.”
What is “The Adjacent Possible”?
Imagine you’re learning how to cook. You don’t aim to become a master chef immediately. You start with basic recipes that don’t need fancy ingredients or appliances, like learning how to make scrambled eggs, pasta topped with olive oil and garlic, or standard rice and lentils.
When you feel competent, you start using slightly complex appliances and add a few ingredients to try out different combinations. In doing so, you learn new dishes and become a better cook. The scientist Stuart Kauffman coined a term for such progressions: the adjacent possible.
The term originally explained how evolution in nature occurs through incremental changes. For instance, none of Homo Sapiens’ finely crafted tools and weapons were sudden inventions. When our ancestral species began to use stones more frequently, they developed opposable thumbs over two million years ago. This, in turn, opened up a whole new cultural branch of the adjacent possible in form of tools that continued to evolve over millennia.
The adjacent possible also explains how genuine, long-lasting improvement occurs. When people become competent at using their existing tools and skillsets, they explore the adjacent possible boundaries, leading to newer combinations and fueling growth. This process repeats itself and eventually, leads to exponential results.
Here’s how the examples mentioned above can apply the concept:
A business where people struggle to use technology can start with basic software that captures just three data fields. Once people get comfortable, three or four more important fields can get added. This process gets repeated until every important field is included in the software.
The overweight person can start his weight loss regime by eating a healthy breakfast, doing simple exercises twice a week, and resting. Once his body feels stronger, he can upgrade to better exercises and diets. This process gets repeated until he reaches his targeted weight.
The aspiring author can start writing and publishing articles online. Once writing becomes a habit, she can explore the adjacent possible boundaries by improving the quality of her writing and building an audience.
At first, progress is so tiny that it’s invisible. But think of it like boiling milk. For a long time, nothing happens. Suddenly, the milk boils and the vessel overflows. Likewise, one percent of improvement each day might seem negligible in the short term. But it yields a whopping 3,778 percent output at the end of the year!
How to Stick to the Course?
An important factor in “the adjacent possible” is tracking and measuring. Without it, you won’t know whether you’re making progress, the process will feel boring, and you’ll give up, often right at the point where you were about to witness positive results.
You can avoid this pitfall by identifying the important metrics of success and tracking them. The simpler your metrics are, the easier they become to track, and the more likely you are to stay on course.
To ensure the software gets used, department heads can track how often people are entering data into it.
To stick to his weight loss regime, the person can weigh himself daily on a digital scale and note his weight and diet in a diary.
To gauge whether she’s getting better as a writer, the aspiring author can count how many words she writes daily and how many email subscriptions she gets each week.
Measurement makes you aware of progress. And progress, no matter how small, is the ultimate motivator.
“The journey to a thousand miles begins with one step,” Lao Tzu wrote. If you try to speed up your journey without knowing how to run, you’ll fall and hurt yourself.
The aim is not to reach your destination as fast as possible, but to reach it while making as few sacrifices as possible, and become a better version of yourself in the process.
Learn the basics and make the best use of your current tools and capabilities. This will stretch your limits and let you discover new ones. All along, an adjacent path will keep revealing itself.
Keep moving on that path at your own pace and you’ll cross the finish line one day. The best part is that you’ll have enjoyed the journey too.
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