The Adjacent Possibility of People

A Theory on Accelerating Our Human Potential

By: Jonathan Kalan, Co-founder, Unsettled

In biology, there’s a theory called the ‘adjacent possible’ that’s always fascinated me. 

The theory simply states that every individual interaction in an ecosystem increases the diversity of what can happen next. It scientifically attempts to explain how something may not be possible now, but it will be given the realization of just one intermediate possibility.

Perhaps it’s because I’m not a student of biology – or of any science, for that matter (though I have written about how Chaos Theory applies to life transitions, if that qualifies me for anything more than deep navel-gazing…) -, that I’m attracted to theories like this. The less I understand, the more curious I am, and the more I seek to infer my own meaning.

One common example of the adjacent possible is a carbon atom. Four billion years ago, a little carbon atom had perhaps few hundred molecular configurations it could stumble into. Today, though the nearly immeasurable interactions that have happened throughout the history of the universe, that lonely carbon atom can become anything – from an elephant to an Ikea chair.

In fact, it is through these small interactions that life itself has become more complex.

I believe that the same is true for people. That in the “adjacent possibility of people”, within every single potential human interaction lies infinite universe of possibilities for us to discover. 

Like a carbon atom, each interaction can change our course, and increase the diversity of our experience as humans.

Yet we, unlike the little carbon atom, have a choice. And we we must choose to be open to those experiences.

As humans, we often tend to get into a habit of viewing our situations as fixed, or static. I have this job, this relationship, this apartment. We define our lives by things we have, and the things we know.

We’ve been conditioned, in some ways, to fear the unknown, instead of actively pursuing it. We often times don’t let ourselves see the possibilities in others, not because we’re blind to them, but perhaps because we’re afraid of what we might find.

When we open ourselves to the adjacent possibility of people, we open ourselves to difference. We become challenged by new perspectives. We become vulnerable. We put our beliefs, our identities, our truths, our foundational elements, at risk.

My life has been an incredible journey of understanding and adventure, simply because I’ve kept myself open to the people I’ve met, the possibilities they’ve held, and the perspectives they’ve shared.

The adjacent possibility of people is like an exponential formula for radical self-discovery, personal growth, and opportunity. Like that little carbon atom, the more we each interact, the more complex we become, diversifying the ultimate range of possibilities we can see and believe in.

We have no idea the opportunities that lie just person, one seat, one degree away, and how that might change our course. 

So take a look at where you sit now. Who led you here today? What possibilities have you seized, what connections have you made, that have shaped your life path?  And who’s sitting just adjacent to you, that will change your tomorrow?

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