This is the fourth and final part of a series on learning. I encourage you to also read the intro, part 1, part 2, and part 3.
Isaac was daydreaming beneath the apple tree when one of the ripe, plump red apples dislodged itself from its branch and fell, smacking him right on the head.
As if struck by divine intervention, Isaac leapt up and shouted "Aha!"
He had just comprehended the law of universal gravitation.
Or so the story goes.
Whether that story is true is not important. What is important is that this narrative fits snugly alongside many other stories like this that collectively contribute to our cultural belief that great ideas spring forth from the minds of great geniuses, borne into existence from nothing.
Fortunately for the rest of us, that narrative, like Newton's apple story, is a myth.
In the book Where Good Ideas Come From, author Steven Johnson writes about a concept he calls "The Adjacent Possible."
The adjacent possible describes the phenomenon whereby the more we learn across all disciplines, the more we are able to access new and unique ideas.
Basically, we're only able to imagine possibilities adjacent to our current body of knowledge. As that body grows, our adjacencies multiply - sometimes exponentially.
I scribbled some rudimentary charts in my favorite notebook to help conceptualize the power of the adjacent possible.
Black represents our current body of knowledge, and red represents the adjacent possible.
It's only possible to access the squares adjacent to our current body of knowledge.
Possessing curiosity and a growth mindset allows us to jump into the adjacent possible, and add some of that territory to our body of knowledge.
The more we grow our body of knowledge, the more adjacencies we create.
Our body of knowledge and our adjacent possibilities, while unique to us, mostly overlap with other people. After all, we go the same schools, learn from the same books, live in the same society, are socialized with the same norms, etc.
You can relate it to geographic exploration. Our ancestors had to learn how to sail before they could cross the ocean. Once they figured that out, they opened up a whole new realm of adjacencies. Slowly but surely, they "filled out the map."
During this geographic exploration phase (which never stops, and continues to this day, just on a much more micro or macro level) the more ships a country sent out in different directions, the more they increased their opportunities to discover unmapped adjacencies.
The more you learn, the bigger your potential to discover completely unmapped adjacencies - territory that nobody else has ever before conceived.
This is another reason to bias toward breadth over depth - some of the best magic comes from interdisciplinary adjacent possibilities.
Along the edges, and in the nooks and crannies between disciplines there is serious potential.
I hesitate to reference Steve Jobs when I write, because everyone does, but in this case I do think his story provides an excellent example.
Jobs' superpower was his ability to harness interdisciplinary adjacencies in new ways.
First, he built a strong foundation by favoring cultivating a beginner's mind, and practicing a growth mindset.
Then he leveraged these traits by becoming a learning machine and favoring breadth over depth. He became well versed in topics ranging from calligraphy, to technology, to sales, to negotiation, to storytelling.
Finally, he recognized the untapped and potentially magic possibilities that lay between, among, and adjacent to his body of knowledge, and he applied the requisite discipline and rigor to put that territory on the map it the form of Apple.
Steve Jobs was a smart guy, as was Isaac Newton, but what their brilliance didn't stem from some mystical, innate genius. It came from steadily amassing a broad body of knowledge through applied learning, and then successfully tapping into the spaces between their knowledge to create new possibilities and new territory.
There is plenty of territory yet to be mapped, and it is accessible to any of us.
It is yours to claim if you decide to put in the work.