The Adjacent Possible

I am currently reading How We Got to Now:  Six Innovations That Made the Modern World by Steven Johnson, and in this book, Johnson explores how incremental advances in science and technology create paradigm-shifting innovations. This process is the same with all long-term goals, but especially in the realm of personal finance—small, daily decisions set you up for long-term success or failure.

Throughout the book, Johnson references a term coined by complexity theorist Stuart Kauffman called the “adjacent possible,” which refers to something that only becomes imaginable after the achievement of something else. In other words, one innovation leads to another, but before that incremental step, it just seems like science fiction.

For example, Dr. John Gorrie invented the refrigerator in 1850. But his invention was based on a number of prior discoveries—In the 1600s, scientists discovered that air is actually made of something. In the 1700s, steam engines created the science of thermodynamics. And soon thereafter, the development of measurement tools and standards allowed for accurate testing.

So without these incremental advances, Dr. Gorrie would not have been successful. Johnson explains, “If you don’t have the right building blocks, you can’t make the breakthrough, however brilliant you might be.” So when there seems to be a paradigm-shifting achievement, it’s really just the result of incremental advances that form the proper “building blocks.”

Your paradigm-shifting achievement is your financial goal, and your building blocks are the details of your financial plan. Now, as you begin saving for retirement or even just getting your financial life in order, success seems unimaginable—it is too far in the distant future. But as you make incremental advances by reaching important milestones along the way, the goal starts to appear achievable.

This whole concept of the adjacent possible is pretty powerful. It essentially implies that you are capable of things you cannot even imagine because you haven’t made the effort to make incremental advances. So the next time you get discouraged about your financial situation, just identify your “current adjacent possible” and what incremental step you can make toward that milestone.


Josh Norris is an Investment Advisory Representative of LeFleur Financial. Josh can be reached at