Adjacent possibilities for freelancers who want more.


This post is based on a one-hour presentation I have given a couple of times this year.

I won’t try to include the full hour of information, or the 29 slides.

But… I hope to communicate the value and power of adjacent possibilities for freelancers.

To start with… what does that even mean?

The phrase is not my own. As far as I can tell, it was first used by Stuart Kauffman, a theoretic biologist. He used it to explain aspects of the evolutionary process.

Steven Johnson, author of the excellent book, Where Good Ideas Come From, introduced the phrase into the non-technical world.

And now I see there’s even an ad agency out there using the phrase as its business name.

Put simply, an adjacent possibility is this…

Think of two adjacent ideas, mix them together and get something new that has more value than either of the separate ingredients.

So… take a bowl of chocolate and a bowl of peanut butter. Not the same thing, but kind of related… both foods, but not essential foods.

They’re not the same, but not totally different. They’re adjacent.

Now put them together… and you get Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.

Another example…

A laptop of is really useful, but kind of heavy to carry around the house or to your favorite coffee shop.

A smart phone is super-light and portable… but has that tiny screen.

Again, these two items are different, but similar. They’re adjacent.

Put them together and you get… a tablet computer.

Why this matters…

Having good ideas is hard. And most of us think that to have an idea with any real value we have to start with a blank sheet of paper.

If we stare at the sheet of paper long enough, and have tons of creative thoughts, we might come up with a really exciting new ides.

Trouble is, it’s going to be a highly risky idea… simply because it’s all new.

But if you start with a couple of existing, adjacent ideas on that piece of paper, and create something new, the level of risk goes way down.

Hey… chocolate and peanut butter? Give it a try. It’s a low-risk and high-reward scenario.

What does this have to do with freelancers?

Good question.

The trouble with raising your hand and saying you’re a freelance writer, a freelance copywriter, a freelance designer, a freelance coder or a freelance anything else… is that you are immediately perceived as a commodity.

You’re a freelance content writer? OK, but with a few clicks I know where I can access a zillion other freelance content writers.

Our challenge as freelancers is to differentiate ourselves in a very busy and noisy marketplace.

How to differentiate yourself by playing the “game” of adjacent possibilities…

Grab yourself three index cards. Lay them out in a row, left to right.

On the left hand card write Content Writer. (Or whatever your core skill is.)

Now, on the right hand card, write down the name of a good non-fiction book you have read. Actually, grab 10 index cards and write a title of a book on each one.

The left card says content writer, the card on the right has the name of a book you have read…

And for now, the card in the middle is blank.

To find something for that middle card we need to combine the left and right cards and see if you get an equivalent of a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup.

Here’s an example from my presentation.

On the left I identify myself as a content writer.

On the right is a book I have read called The Checklist Manifesto. (Excellent book!)

By mixing the two outer cards together I have created something new. I have a Content Marketing Checklist System.

Or at least I have the beginnings of an idea. And I bet if I developed that idea I could come up with something my clients would love.

And once I became the Content Marketing Checklist System guy, I’ll never again have to worry about being mistaken for one of those “commodity” content writers.

I’d stand in a class all my own, and charge a lot more for my services.

1+ 1 = 5. Or something close.

You may have to try this with 5, 10 or 20 books before you come up with anything interesting. But why not?

Another example…

I’m going to keep Content Writer on the left card and then, on my set of right hand cards I’m going to write some other skills I have.

Not any skill. It needs to be reasonably adjacent.

For example, one of my skills is that I can milk a cow. Bet you didn’t know that! But it’s definitely not adjacent. Fun fact, but not helpful.

But I do have some reasonable design skills. After school I went to art college for a while. (Bet you didn’t know that either.)

So on one of my cards on the right I’m going to scribble “design”.

Hmmm… Mix those two cards together and I could come up with “web content design”.

Is that a thing? I think it totally could be. Social media in particular is becoming increasingly visual. All the time now we’re seeing words and images working together and being posted to various social media channels.

I could do that. I could become a web content designer.

And again, I’d be differentiating myself and increasing my perceived value.

Keep playing the game…

Play with these index cards.

The card on the left usually describes one of your primary skills.

With the card on the right you can take all kinds of routes to find something adjacent.

Could be a book.

Could be a secondary skill you have…like design, research, editing, teaching, videography, translation.

Could be a skill someone else has… mixing up your skills with the different but complimentary skills of someone else.

In my presentation I go through a lot of other examples of how this “game” can work.

And maybe I’ll write some follow-up posts to dig a little deeper.

In the meantime, get busy with those index cards.

Play around with them and see what you can come up with.

Remember, the idea is to combine two adjacent ideas into a whole new possibility and opportunity.

That opportunity will help differentiate you as a freelancers and give you a 1+1=5 jump in value.


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1 thought on “Adjacent possibilities for freelancers who want more.”

  1. Very interesting post, Nick. An intriguing twist on – or extension of – the simple challenge of aligning around key skills, interests, and passions.

    I, for one, will be watching for those follow-up posts.


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