The adjacent possible: How to create an astonishing career

A dive into Cal Newport's book and how it relates to your career journey.

The adjacent possible: How to create an astonishing career

In 2019, I quit my job to become a full-time writer.

In this article, I want to explore the reasons why I made the leap, question whether it was the right decision given the information I had at the time, and finally discuss the possibilities going forward.

To help me accomplish this, I will be relying heavily on Cal Newport’s book So Good They Can’t Ignore You. Newport brings a solid, unemotional logic to the conversation of career choice in his book. I honestly wish I read the book when it was released in 2012.

In that year, I graduated with a degree in Classical and Medieval Studies. The seed of wanting to become a writer had already been planted. One of the main reasons I pursued a BA in CLAM was largely due to my admiration for C.S. Lewis (he also received a degree in classics).

But, from then on, I let different priorities guide my decision-making. Priorities that were both good and valid, but not inherently my own. I want to prevent myself from making those same kinds of mistakes in the future. I want to have more conscious control over the path I take, and in order to do that, I have to understand how I got to where I am in the first place.

What is the adjacent possible?

In So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Newport presents an idea called the "adjacent possible." As we dive into my career journey, as well as investigate the career choices of others (like my wife!), this will become a central theme to what we are looking for: how all of the points on our journeys connect.

Newport offers us a look into the origin of the term with its creator, the biologist Stuart Kauffman. Kauffman “used it to describe the spontaneous formation of complex chemical structures from simpler structures.”

The theory goes like this, “Given a soup of chemical components…lots of new chemicals will form. Not every new chemical, however, is equally likely. The new chemicals you’ll find are those that can be made by combining the structures already in the soup.” [emphasis added]

Let's use a simple cooking analogy to explain further. If all you have in your kitchen to cook with is a loaf of bread, American cheese, and a few pickles, the meals you can create with those items are limited. You could make a sandwich or a creative grilled cheese or some kind of cheesy-pickle monstrosity. But dishes like lasagna or pot roast are off the menu. Why? Because the ingredients aren't currently available.

Writers Steven Johnson and Eddie Smith help us apply this concept to our career and innovation goals. Johnson writes, “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.”

What they call the adjacent possible, I call The Theory of Connecting Flights.

In our modern world, we can get to anywhere from anywhere – just not always in one direct trip. When my wife and I traveled to Chattanooga, Tennessee, we had to first take a flight to Atlanta, Georgia. At the time, we were living in Cleveland, Ohio. If you look at a map, you can see that we had to fly over 100 miles past our final destination to board the correct connecting flight.

"You can get to anywhere from anywhere – just not always in one direct trip."

Chattanooga wasn’t an immediate adjacent possibility for us when we were in the Cleveland airport. But Atlanta was. And once we chose that option and arrived at the next point in our journey, new adjacent possibilities, or connecting flights, opened up. One of them being Chattanooga.

I say all this because it’s an immensely powerful idea when you think about it. A project or partnership which seems impossible from where you are now might become an adjacent possibility just one dot down the road.

The better possibilities, ingredients, and connecting flights you have access to - the better destinations and combinations you will create. The goal is to be moving ever closer towards the shadow future you most desire. Or, as Cal would put it, pursue shadow futures that align with your skills (career capital), follow the law of financial viability, and offer you the opportunity for impact, creativity, and control.

With that, let’s take a few minutes to review the main ideas from So Good They Can’t Ignore You so that we can understand the core principles and see which were followed or ignored in each of our case studies.

Cal Newport’s 4 rules for career success

Rule #1: Don’t follow your passion

In the first section of his book, Newport tackles The Passion Hypothesis and systematically deconstructs it in order to make room for something much more sound. The hypothesis states, “The key to occupational happiness is to first figure out what you’re passionate about and then find a job that matches this passion.”

However, for Newport, passion is less of a treasure waiting to be discovered and more of a motivation waiting to be created. Research shows that passion is, in fact, a product of both time and mastery.

Therefore, if we want "compelling careers," we should focus our efforts on something other than continual searching. That thing leads us to Rule #2.

Rule #2: Be so good they can’t ignore you (the importance of skill)

This rule is based upon a quote comedian Steve Martin gave during an interview on the Charlie Rose show. As the interview came to an end, Rose asked Martin for any parting advice for aspiring performers. Martin replied with, "Nobody ever takes note of [my advice], because its not the answer they want to hear…I always say, 'Be so good they can't ignore you.'"

Newport calls this idea the Craftsman Mindset “where you focus relentlessly on what value you’re offering the world” through skill acquisition and development. The goal is to build career capital, the rare and valuable skills required to do great work. And great work is defined as possessing three fundamental traits: creativity, control, and impact.

Furthermore, the way we follow the craftsman mindset and become so good they can’t ignore us is through strict deliberate practice.

Rule #3: Turn down a promotion (the importance of control)

In explaining how Rule #2 leads to Rule #3, Newport writes, "The obvious next question is how to invest this [career] capital once you have it."

Through his research and interviews, the author found that the theme of control appeared in every case of enjoyable work to the point where he nicknamed this factor, "the dream-job elixir."

The problem is that you can only gain control through trade-offs. The first trap, as the author calls it, is when control is acquired too soon without enough career capital to support it. In this case, the leap for control becomes unsustainable and can have negative impacts on one’s career trajectory.

The second trap occurs when workers attain this capital, the organizations or social structures they are a part of will actively work to keep them from taking more control. While more control over your working life may be beneficial to you and your family, that is hardly ever the case for your employer or colleagues.

This second trap also highlights one of the most difficult trade-offs when it comes to career advancement and control. Lulu Young, a software developer based in Boston, had the opportunity to become "a hot-shot executive VP" but turned it down to work in lower prestige roles which offered more autonomy and eventually became a full-time freelancer.

Why would she make this trade-off? Because, for Lulu, control over how she spent her time was more valuable to her than a higher income or prestigious title.

Note that promotions aren’t always the antithesis of control (the story of designer Joe Duffy illustrates this point perfectly). However, in every case, control will require some type of valuable trade-off.

Rule #4: Think small, act big (the importance of mission)

The final rule deals with the desired trait of impact (or mission) in one’s work. Workers want to feel like the hours and energy they are putting into a project or organization have meaning. But, like passion, meaning and mission are traits that have to be developed over time rather than discovered.

It's in Rule #4 that we first encounter the idea of the adjacent possible, which we covered in detail above. This idea of using the ingredients you currently have, or making the most of your current situation, is instrumental in uncovering a work-related mission. Newport describes this activity with the phrase “think small, act big.”

Thinking small means developing a narrow focus for your work. As you become more familiar with your industry, topic, or skill-set, you will inevitably bump up against the edges of what is currently possible. This situation gives you the opportunity to see what adjacent possibilities fit your skills and interests.

From there, your task is to engage in little bets - bite-sized actions that have a short timeframe and provide quick feedback. The goal with these is to micro-experiment your way into a mission that aligns with your skill-set and provides the traits of a compelling career (creativity, control, and impact).

Cal Newport’s formula for career success is both systematic and incremental. Terms like mission-driven and passion-project may get us excited, but they offer little in the way of sound direction when it comes to creating a career that suits us.

With these ideas in mind, let’s jump into a few career case studies so that we can examine how these “rules” can play out in real life.

3 Career Case Studies

Case study 1: Pardis Sabeti

We first meet Pardis in Chapter 13 of Cal’s book. For the author, she is one of the best examples of how mission evolves from career capital.

What I find most engaging about her journey is that she honestly didn't know where she wanted to end up throughout most of it. Instead of continually searching for that right fit, she allowed herself to follow her curiosity and built corresponding skills along the way. Then, when it came time to choose her profession and concentration, she had accrued enough career capital to make her position genuinely mission-driven.

Quick summary of Pardis Sabeti’s career journey

  • In high school, her path shifted from math to biology because of an influential teacher.
  • In college (MIT), her biology path was reinforced by the department which had "an unbelievable emphasis on teaching."
  • Doing well at MIT qualified her for a Rhodes Scholarship, which she then leveraged to take advantage of the new adjacent possibilities. One of them being a PhD at Oxford.
  • Her study at Oxford allowed her to work with African infectious diseases and research the role of genetics in the fight to cure them.
  • Unsure of how to combine and apply her skills after her PhD (during the dissertation phase), she pursued a MD at Harvard Medical School.
  • Back in Boston, her genetics background opened the door to a post-doctoral fellowship with Eric Lander.
  • The result of her fellowship was an academic paper that quickly rose to fame, opening even more doors in the process.
  • With a PhD, MD, and growing notoriety in her field, Pardis was offered a professorship at Harvard University along with the opportunity to run her own lab dedicated to the study of infectious diseases.

Let’s review a few of the major points from her journey and how they follow the rules laid out in So Good They Can’t Ignore You. Her initial years were shaped by curiosity, matching skills, and a desire to learn (Rule #1). As an outsider looking in on her story, it looks like she humbly followed the direction given by those she respected – teachers, professors, and leaders in the field.

For her to achieve so much at such a young age, Pardis had to be extremely knowledgeable and hard-working. But I never get a sense of ego as I read through her accomplishments (Rule #3). She knew her worth but didn't allow a desire to prove herself cause her to make impatient or irrational choices.

If you look at her academic record, Pardis dedicated herself to learning and mastering her field for 13 consecutive years (1993 – 2006). A textbook example of Rule #2 and the ten-year rule done right.

Finally, as we look at the later part of her journey, many of her most significant accomplishments were the result of partnerships she had with more established individuals in the field (Rule #4). She didn’t try to immediately make herself look good (something most people with a PhD from Oxford would do), but instead, dedicated her work to making others look good. This strategy paid off.

By the time she landed her professorship and lab project, she had built up such a vast store of both career and relationship capital that she could have, quite literally, done anything. The creativity, impact, and control her career now affords her were a direct result of the patient route she took to get there.

Case study #2: Breahna Ramos

It’s not just sentimentality when I say I look up to my wife. She is an extraordinary woman, inside and out, and I think what she’s accomplished career-wise, especially when you take into account the personal struggles she’s overcome along the way, is incredible.

Like Pardis, I will begin retelling Breahna’s journey in high school and follow it through to where she is now. Even though the details of her journey are very different than Sabetis’, I think you will find a lot of the same themes and practices along the way.

Quick summary of Breahna Ramos’s career journey

  • In high school, Breahna took advantage of the community college partnership and graduated with both her high school diploma and Associate of Arts degree at 17.
  • She stayed at the community college an additional year to accrue more experience alongside one of her academic mentors.
  • Her stellar academic record got her admission to every local college she applied to. She chose John Carrol University because of the cause-driven mindset of the leadership and her ability to work closely with the sociology faculty.
  • During her two years at JCU, Breahna landed three internships and won the Ruth P Miller award in Human Services (a rare accomplishment made even more unique by the fact that she was one of the only transfer students to ever win it).
  • Instead of immediately jumping into graduate school, she took the next opportunity to work at a variety of non-profits to see where her curiosity and skills most overlapped. These included Goodwill, Make-A-Wish, and the Domestic Violence and Child Advocacy Center.
  • Equipped with a deeper understanding of her field, she enrolled in a Master's program focused on crisis response and trauma.
  • Next, she leveraged her academic record, career skills, and industry relationships to land a position as the Director of Victim Services at Wilmington College.

One aspect I find so telling about both Pardis's and Breahna's journeys is that they never make decisions in a vacuum. Breahna opened herself up to wise mentors early on and this proved to be a huge advantage down the road (Rule #1).

Breahna also showed a level of patience and reserve that you’d be hard-pressed to find in most people her age. Graduating with a college degree before the age of 18 could have led her to rush into several adjacent opportunities. Instead, she chose to play to her strengths and continued to develop her skill-set as a student and a leader (Rule #2).

It’s worth noting that while she worked at a variety of non-profits, her roles were essentially entry-level positions. Although this was the circumstance she found herself in, she was still able to leverage these positions into greater opportunities (such as using her time at DVCAC to develop comprehensive program management and institutional research skills). By the time she left that role, she had had a major impact upon the direction of the organization – all while tackling these additional duties in an unpaid capacity (Rule #3).

Finally, ending up in a director role was a direct result of the little bets she had been making along the way (Rule #4). In between her formal degrees, Breahna attained a wide variety of certifications and attended multiple in-person workshops. This allowed her to further develop both her career and relationship capital. When you look at all the pieces together, landing in a position where she could have full control over the direction of an entire program was only a matter of time because, with each step, it became a more likely adjacent possibility.

Case study #3: David Ramos (me)

Now comes the fun (aka painful) part: dissecting my career journey. I've written about some of these elements before, but never all together in one single post. I'm hoping by doing so, I will be able to illuminate some of the patterns I've overlooked and prevent myself from making the same mistakes in the future.

Quick Long summary of David Ramos’s career journey

  • In high school, I had little discipline when it came to preparing for college. I was overwhelmed by the idea and ashamed by how little I knew. When I approached a counselor about applying to my dream school (Princeton University), she firmly dissuaded me from doing so. Overwhelmed and clueless, I did a quick search for the best college I could attend while still living at home (using the US NEWS rankings as my source), sent out a single college application to Case Western Reserve University, and got accepted with a near-full scholarship.
  • I enrolled for a Mechanical Engineering degree because I was good at math and science, and that was the career a few teachers had mentioned. By the end of the first year, I knew I wanted to change. I had a Roman History class with an incredible professor who made me think differently about the humanities.
  • After only one year, I took the next semester off to decide what to do next. Growing up in a deeply religious family, I also felt a call to more seriously understand my faith. That desire, coupled with my renewed interest in the humanities, led me to transfer to Cedarville University – a place where I could explore my faith and the humanities.
  • Why couldn’t I just stay at CWRU and accomplish that same goal? Great question. During this time, I was terribly introverted. I was scared, a lot, and allowed the fear to keep me isolated. If I had opened up and listened to other's input, I might have been able to make wiser choices.
  • During my time at CU I majored in Education, Youth Ministry, and English (I literally changed my major for each of the three semesters I attended). None of them felt quite right. I was following, and falling prey to, the Passion Hypothesis without even knowing it.
  • A fear of ever-increasing debt and homesickness caused me to transfer colleges once again — this time to Cleveland State University, which was also driving distance from home. There, I majored in Classical and Medieval Studies: a degree that was interesting to me because of C.S. Lewis, but also because it was the fastest degree I could graduate with after changing majors so many times over the last few years.
  • Why didn’t I transfer back to CWRU instead of attending an entirely new college? Looking back, I think it was a combination of shame and fear. I didn’t want to feel like I was going “backwards” and I wasn’t sure I would be granted the same scholarship I gave up when I left. Essentially, I didn’t know what would happen and I didn’t ask - a pattern I repeat often.
  • At CSU, I got a job in the college library and developed great relationships with the Religion and History faculty. When it came to deciding what to do next, I sought their advice but followed exactly 0% of it.
  • Knowing I wanted a graduate degree in the humanities, and because I had a strong religious background, I applied to two schools: Boston University and Ashland Theological Seminary. I got into both, with scholarships. However, the cost of living in Boston, coupled with its distance, caused me again to act in fear and turn down the opportunity.
  • During my time at Ashland, I worked a number of odd jobs. There was no overarching theme to my career during this time, other than a desire to not be broke. Eventually, my CSU library job opened the door to other academic library jobs, which I took advantage of.
  • At Ashland, I developed a deeper interest in higher education and created great relationships with the faculty. When I told my advisor that I wanted to pursue a doctoral degree and work in higher education, he staunchly shut it down. Not because I was ill-equipped for the role – he just thought it was a bad industry, and perhaps he could see that I lacked the patience necessary for a doctoral program.
  • Looking back, I appreciate the advice he gave. Of all the mentors I've had and ignored, his advice stuck the most and influenced my actions going forward.
  • Directionless as to what to do next, I defaulted to job-hunting for security's sake. My part-time community college job had no promise of becoming a full-time opportunity, so I left to work at ITT Tech in a role that I neither enjoyed nor was equipped to succeed at. I will go down as the most ineffective admissions representative in ITT Tech's history, but I’m okay with that.
  • During this time, a position opened up back in the community college department I had just left. I accepted the position in the winter of 2015 and worked there until leaving to write full-time in the summer of 2019.
  • During my time there, I was able to learn from incredible people, develop my leadership skills, and grow my understanding of the higher education landscape. But it was also during this time that I realized how much I preferred the academic/teaching side of the house over the administrative side. To make the leap, I would need more education (PhD or similar). The realization made me feel trapped once again, causing me to leap into writing before I was fully prepared to do so.

Let’s review a few of the major themes. The most obvious conclusion is that my journey had little intentional structure to it. Whereas Pardis and Breahna allowed their curiosity, patience, and mentorships to influence their decisions, my choices were more frantic. I ignored nearly all of the advice I was given and allowed a never-ending search for passion to shape my direction (Rule #1).

In regards to Rule #2, I never gave myself enough time to become great at anything because I shifted between majors, interests, and roles so frequently. It could be said that my writing and interest in religion were lines you could follow, and reasons for my continual pivots. But upon deeper analysis, it’s easy to see that those shifts were primarily influenced by fear and ego. I didn't know what I wanted. All I knew was that I wanted and deserved more (even though I had next to no career-capital to trade for that elusive "more").

I chased promotions and prestige because I recognized that they offered many of the qualities of desired work (Rule #3). However, I hadn't yet realized the necessary trade-offs for those qualities (such as income and control).

Finally, I sacrificed too much, too soon, by taking big, costly bets instead of allowing little bets to incrementally show me the way forward (Rule #4). I had many "missions" that drove me, such as writing about my faith and working to support the institution of higher education. But because my career-capital was still so limited, the impact I could make in these areas was perpetually stunted. I regret making many of my most important decisions in a “vacuum.” However, regret is a poor motivator. As my wife likes to say, I made my mistakes early.

So then, what did I do right?

For starters, I didn’t stop. I kept taking action. I kept moving (albeit, not always forward). And I kept answering the questions I had, even if what I chose was the very long way to doing so.

Second, I wrote continuously throughout this entire period. At Case, I attended writing workshops and department events. At Cedarville, I blogged and landed my first paid writing gigs. At Cleveland State, I developed my research skills and learned how to write longer-form pieces. In graduate school, my writing was featured in a number of venues.

Writing has always been in the background of my career journey. A sidekick to whatever my current career obsession was at the time.

Third, I made great relationships. Along my winding path, I developed friends I still talk to every week. I met mentors whose work has profoundly shaped my own. And of course, I married an incredible woman (something that would have likely not happened if I stayed at Case or went to Boston).

One factor to note is that our conversations about career never happen in a bubble. They inevitably ripple out into every other area of our lives: health, love, money, faith, family. The career you choose shapes more than just the work you do. It tells you what kind of people you will spend the majority of your waking hours with; it determines where you will live and what you can earn; it puts demands on your body and mind and spirit.

A career choice is never only that. It’s always also a life choice. When deciding what kind of work you want to do, you’re also deciding the kind of story you want to live.

When I left my job in higher education to write full time, I consciously traded prestige and income for creativity and control. I knew that I wanted to live a different kind of story. While that desire may not fit nicely within Newport's four rules, it made sense according to the values my wife and I chose for ourselves.

What you can learn form my mistakes

So, what can I do now that I'm here? Using Newport's framework and my personal experiences, I want to think aloud about the next best steps I can take, as well as offer a few critical pieces of advice along the way.

From the background to the forefront

First, the priority for the next stage in my career will be to move writing from the background to the forefront of my attention. Writing played a minor role in nearly every step in my journey. But for reasons that were both conscious and unconscious, I never allowed it to become a significant factor in my decisions.

To do this, I am going to follow Rule #4's advice on making small bets. I've been able to land some freelance jobs in the past. I believe pursuing freelance opportunities once again, coupled with a part-time editorial or staff writing job, will fit this category well.

I want to hone in on what areas, formats, and subjects I write well in – and how those correlate with what is needed and valued as market capital. This strategy, coupled with deliberate practice to improve my writing, should lead to new and exciting adjacent possibilities within the near future. Such as a full-time staff writing job, or long-term freelance project that I can fully invest in.

If you are in the midst of a career transition and are looking for ways to better understand what you may want to do next, I highly encourage you to try a similar exercise to the one I performed above. Take some time to list all of the pivots you've made in your education and work experience, and most importantly, analyze why you made those changes. You are going to find patterns you didn't realize were there, and you'll be able to use that information to decide how to best move forward.

Furthermore, if you find that there is some activity in the background across your journey, pay attention to it. Find out why it's there and decide whether or not it's time to bring that item to the forefront.

Break open the vacuum

Second, I must start making decisions within community. Decision-making is something I plan to write a lot about over the next few months (I have a pile of related books just waiting for me to dive into). I want to be more intentional about who I take advice from and how I act on that advice.

One practice I’ve already started is reaching out to writers when I come across an impressive piece of writing. My questions to them are specific and craft-based. I’m not asking for career advice or promotion of any sort. All I want to understand is how they did X – some quality I found impressive. For example, how Elaine Meyer did such a phenomenal job with her research for this article on productivity.

My two main goals for this season are to become a better writer (Craftsman Mindset) and to start accruing the career capital that will lead me towards interesting adjacent possibilities (i.e. feature stories, partnerships with writers I look up to, a book deal).

Ask yourself, how do you make decisions most frequently? Do they happen in a vacuum, apart from any outside input? Do all of your decisions revolve around one person, outcome, or situation? Are you happy with the majority of the decisions you make?

Everyone is so concerned with having more control over their lives, but control is only beneficial when you know how to use it. When you give control to ill-equipped people, dangerous things happen.

Change directions like a tortoise

My third, and probably most counter-cultural insight, is to move slower. No matter how many times you read the story about the tortoise and the hare, the tortoise always wins. In both Pardis and Breahna’s stories, there was an element of patience I found to be admirable. Going forward, I want to do less reacting and more responding to the situations I face.

I used to think that moving slowly was the same thing as being stuck. A more mature me can see the truth. Being stuck has nothing to do with how little or how slowly you move. A hare in quicksand isn’t making any progress, no matter how much you see him flailing around.

Progress is often more complicated than we make it out to be. Especially when it comes to mental or emotional development. The results of deep work take time to show up. The butterfly effect rings true, and the small changes we make today, for better or worse, will reshape the very course of our lives in the long run.

What are you rushing into? Why? Are you afraid of missing out on something? Or are you running away from something? It's fashionable to say that we move fast because we're ambitious. But it's revealing how often ambition is merely the underside of fear. If all of our focus centers on shortening the journey, it’s usually because we’re chasing the wrong outcome. (Not wrong in itself, but probably wrong for us)

“You need to get good in order to get good things in your working life.” — Cal Newport

You are in control of your career. The type of work you want to do, the level of income you want to make, how you spend your workdays – they are all up to you. As Annie Dillard writes, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” So the question is, how will you spend yours?

Will you challenge yourself to become the person who is worthy of great work? Or will the temptations of a comfortable life keep you from exploring the adjacent possibilities surrounding you?

I am working on choosing the former. I hope you will too.