The Adjacent Possible..

“..the adjacent possible defines all those molecular reactions that were directly achievable in the primordial soup. Sunflowers and mosquitoes and brains exist outside that circle of possibility. The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.”

Johnson, Steven (2010-10-05). Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation (p. 31). Penguin Group. Kindle Edition.

Most people I know are building something. Or thinking of a way to build something. Or wondering what they should build. Or wondering what they would build if they had the right skills and talent. Or inspiration. There is an urge in all human beings to make stuff. Whether it is a painting, a relationship, a book, a presidential campaign or a new way to arrange living room furniture, everyone is making something. Or desires to make something if only they had the courage or the skills they assume they lack. In many instances, we yearn to take this to another level, and to make something that no one else has ever made. To make something that others will find useful. To make something that will revolutionize the way of making that thing from this point forward.

We have more than enough materials to make stuff with. We have metal, sun, oxygen, innate talents, education, books, instruments, technology, and on and on … Yet there is a mystery in how to integrate a singular vision with the infinite amount of materials and genres available and to produce something utterly new. Something that holds meaning and allows us to leave an indelible mark on the world long after our inspiration, and eventually our bodies, leave this plane of existence. It is the mystery that forces us to choose between our intuition and our fear and doubt; the trusty followers of those first sparks of inspiration. In order to carry out an idea from the inward to the outward, vulnerability is necessary. A blind step into the unknown must be taken with faith that the inner vision will take form. A hundred places at once, red paint hits canvas, chisels shape wood, fingers hit guitar strings, lips crush against each other and somehow there is a different result every time.

Johnson’s “adjacent possible” speaks to the infinite possibilities that reside outside of the finite amount of energy and resources available at any given moment. There is a mysterious element to creativity, a secret passageway that allows the creation of something new from material that has been used over and over from the beginning of time. I believe that by leaning into the mystery, into the fear, and ultimately the rush a new song, a new love, a new idea brings, we have the ability to discover an authentic  expression of the human experience through creation. In other words, there is never an end to what is possible. And there are few words to explain why this is so, and yet it is.

Where does your “adjacent possible” reside? Just outside of your comfort zone. Go there. Image

The Freedom of Chaos

Yesterday  I got back from an amazing week at Morningstar Farm on Orcas Island where I worked with my good friend Caryn Simmons producing her Song and Dance Camp. Four days with fifteen kids  learning songs, choreographing , designing costumes, exploring the farm, swimming in the pond and performing for parents in a big old barn. As I begin designing a rough outline of what a curriculum based on Darden Smith’s Be An Artist Program might look like, I use the opportunity to observe kids engaging in an activity that is challenging, fun and creative. I keep in mind all that I have been reading about patterns of innovation and characteristics of creativity and am delighted to observe these themes at work. Caryn’s management and organizational style is very different from mine, mostly because of the difference in environment and genres. Hers being a fun summer music camp and mine being a failing public middle school in inner-city Austin. For the sake of research, I imagine superimposing her atmosphere and style into one of my past classrooms. There are costumes, hat stands, sheet music and kids strewn about. The schedule is loose and activities run the gamut from theater games to vocal exercises, group rehearsal, swimming and snack time without much pre planning. The day before the big show many lyrics have yet to be memorized, dance moves to be worked out and costumes to be decided upon. However, the kids have retained a positive, fun attitude all week and seem unconcerned with whether or not they will be able to pull off eleven songs and four costume changes without disentagrating into chaos. I am impressed that Caryn allows the kids to make decisions about what is working and what isn’t and what would be the best use of time.  An extended swimming sessions releases the pent up energy of a two hour rehearsal of the song “Mambo Italiano” and when the kids return for small group and solo rehearsals, they are refreshed, calm and ready to focus. There are absolutely no behavioral issues. One of the younger children has cerebral palsy and she is treated with utmost respect and affection by most of the other kids. So this chaos is actually really beautiful and seems to allow the kids just enough freedom to enjoy themselves with enough challenging activities to keep them busy and engaged. The performance goes off without a hitch, not a single line is dropped and the young girl with cerebral palsy performs a song she has co-written with me center stage, her voice full and confident as can be.

The sense of ownership and co-creation that the kids are allowed in this environment is what I believe makes it so successful. As well, the fluidity and in some ways chaotic nature of the routine and environment also lends itself to the kids tapping into their own abilities to be creative without being stifled by rigidity and silence. Ideas are passed between themselves and the adult facilitator which is what Caryn acts as more than a teacher. In terms of what the kids gain from the experience is huge. Self-esteem, problem-solving, and cooperative learning are all skills that are highly sharpened and put to the test every day. Engaging in five or six different activities a day including music, dance, songwriting, swimming and nature exploration makes this a highly educational experience as well.

On the early morning ferry back to Anacortes Saturday morning, I reflect on how freedom and chaos play a role in my own creative projects. Not having a 9-5 job this past year makes it seem as though I’ve had so much free time and I worry that   I’ve been wasteful. I make mental list of all I have accomplished and the list is longer than I expected. I began the year with a loose idea of the areas I wanted to explore and the things I wanted to accomplish. I’ve accomplished this and more and had more fun than I’ve had in over a decade. So thank you little-bit-o-chaos, for giving my mind and the heart the space to find what they are seeking, and gain even more along the way.