Lost is a good place to start


If you don’t know where you are, or you’re not sure where you’re going, your navigation software isn’t going to get you there.

Most of us have something we’re supposed to be figuring out. Maybe it’s a career path or a difficult family situation. The searching can be frustrating and sometimes lead to shoving the whole project into our mental closet for sometime later when I have more time to deal with this.

It feels safe to know exactly where we’re going next, but when the path isn’t clear, the not-knowing can stop us from even taking the first step.

The Adjacent Possible

The adjacent possible is an idea borrowed from the work of theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman and it is, basically, the concept that evolution happens at the edges of what is already happening. We can’t see ten or twelve steps down the evolutionary path, but we often can see around the edges of what we already know.

The idea is similar to what we do when we want to achieve a reach goal. If you’ve never been a runner but you decide to run a marathon, you probably won’t start by heading out for a 20-mile run. The first step is probably a jog around the block. With that first outing, you’ve stepped into the adjacent possible. With each step outward, you’re expanding your possibilities. 5K? 10K? Half-marathon? Marathon? Triathlon?

A lot of our work is more complicated than laying out a marathon training program because the variables are unpredictable. The Economy. Our co-workers. Changing work-place environments. Changing family situations. In many cases, we leap to a possibility’s fully-formed future and it seems unattainable (I could never do that) or we get overwhelmed by the things that could happen along the way (There’s no way to figure this out) and we stop.

Using the adjacent possible as a guide, and a mind-map as your guidebook, we can break a stretch into attainable possibilities. Notice I didn’t say “break it into steps.” More on that in a moment.

The Unattainable Goal

A single-celled organism didn’t become a Zebra overnight so if you want to be a Zebra, it helps to think backward. What’s in the world around your zebra?

Maybe you want a top-ranking position but you feel like your qualifications aren’t there yet and your experience isn’t sufficient. What would be close to your goal?

This is where a mind-map can come in handy. Jotting down all the experiences and skills that might be hovering around your goal gives you a world from which to map back to where you are now. Take a few of those next-to-your-goal ideas and map them out. You’re essentially after a treasure map, in reverse, leading to where you are today. When your backward mapping begins to contain experiences and skills you already have, you’ve have a map of pathways from today to your future goal.

Once done, it could look something like this:


The interesting thing about this map is that it will not show you a single path but a web of ways in which you might get to your goal. And the interesting thing about working towards our long-range goals is that both the path and the goal tend to change with time. So hanging onto that map and revisiting it to add new ideas and possibilities is a good idea. After all, each time you change your world, the adjacent possible changes with it.

The Unpredictable Goal

All goals are unpredictable but some are more wild and hairy than others. Our culture tends to reinforce the idea that success and progress are linear, measurable, and easy to map out. We want to list a series of steps, take them one-by-one and- voila! -results achieved. Everywhere we turn, we are bombarded by info graphics, predictive models, and performance measures. They can be very helpful but they can also create a sense of risk-aversion if you want to work towards something less numeric and harder to see. Something out there in the soup of future possibilities.

Let’s imagine a hurricane. When meteorologist are predicting where a hurricane will land, they use the cone of uncertainty.

As the storm moves closer, their prediction is more accurate until we have landfall in real time. When you’re working toward an unpredictable goal, you’re pretty far off shore, and your cone is wide. The same exercise above, mapping out the adjacent possibilities, can help. In this case, however, you may be after a particular result – better customer service – and the path you establish could bring in new information that causes your target (your landfall) to shift. If you’ve mapped out a wide range of possibilities for your program, you can keep your eye on the main goal (landfall: improved customer feedback) and be flexible along the way (implementing new ideas that come from your feedback loop).

Your new cone/map of uncertainty might look like this:


The Missing Ingredient

All these exercises require the one thing that seems to be in shortest supply for everyone I talk with. Time.

We all rush around, checking email and feeling hounded by deadlines and the list of things you didn’t get don yesterday or the day before. Shoving our ideas into the corner is easier than setting aside the time to actually deal with them.

In order to do this, you have to find a way that works for you. (check out Gretchen Rubin’s video on forming habits by being true to your nature – it’s liberating)

Maybe this mind-mapping exercise doesn’t sound like fun in which case it might be your “frog” and you could try doing it first today.

Or maybe you relish the opportunity to daydream and doodle a little and you wouldn’t mind getting up early or spending your lunch hour alone someplace, undisturbed.

If you’re feeling like you don’t have the time at all, think for a moment about all the minutes you’ve already spent thinking about the fact that you’re not dealing with this nagging thing, and maybe the ultimate cost-savings will help you find the motivation to pull out your pen and get busy mapping.

You might find a treasure somewhere along the way.


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