A Daring Framework for Living a Brave Life

Tommy Leung wrote this on Feb 28, 2018
6 minute read

I loved video games growing up. I still play them but not nearly as much.

My dream career was one in the games industry. Making the games that millions enjoy playing.

I didn’t know anything about making games but I had a subscription to Nintendo Power magazine.

So I tried making my own magazine. I didn’t get very far.

Then I tried drawing comics because Nintendo Power had short comics in each issue.

I found drawing fun so I did that a lot. I even thought that I would become an artist.

My parents did not like that idea. They said that artists starve.

I didn’t become an artist.

Instead my parents brought home a computer one day and I was hooked. We got AOL and got online.

The feeling I had exploring the internet must be how pioneers of the American West felt as they went westward.

It was not long before I stumbled upon making a website. My magazine didn’t work. My comics were subpar. But maybe I can try my hand at a website.

I learned how to write HTML and use graphics programs to make a website. I made it about video games. Specifically Nintendo games.

How most of us decide our future

My life is a series of adjacent possibles. Your life is probably similar. At least when it comes to your own personal curiosities and hobbies.

You discover one thing. Then it leads you to this other thing. Which leads you to another thing that when combined with something you learned earlier can lead to this other place.

Each step is an adjacent possible.

Ironically we don’t apply this concept to our professional lives. Some of us do. But most of us do not.

We had hobbies and favorite activities as we grew up. Then we get to the end of High School and we need to decide what we are going to study in college because it’ll define the rest of our lives.

A big decision.

Yet we are just children. What do we really know at 17? Barely anything.

We get guidance from adults. And they have to play it safe. No parent, teacher, or guidance counselor wants to give risky advice. What if things turn out horribly? It is a lot for one’s conscience to bear.

So by and large we decide to study something safe and boring. Accounting. Finance. Computer Science. Business. Psychology. Biology. Law.

Whatever it is that looks like it will offer a good paying job in 4 years. There is nothing wrong with making decisions this way. It is fairly safe and others will be in the same boat.

But is it the best way to make such decisions?

Should we, instead, decide based on what is an adjacent possible for us? What we already learned a lot about and were fascinated by?

A path through adjacent possibles

I learned about the concept of the adjacent possible from the book So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport.

Fantastic book. You should read it if you haven’t.

The adjacent possible are all the possibilities that are directly next to you. But the act of picking an adjacent possible to pursue is called a pivot.

And a pivot is something all successful people and businesses use.

It is how success is found. Pivoting is a discovery process. You start somewhere. It can be purely random. Like what you happen to find interesting. You then discover the adjacent possibles and pivot to one of them. If what you’re looking for isn’t there then you pivot to a new adjacent possible.

Each pivot opens up more and new adjacent possibles. There’s a compound effect. An outcome that you had no path to 1 or 2 pivots ago can suddenly open up because of what you learned from the most recent pivots.

A common error people make when pivoting is they don’t pivot to an adjacent possible. They pivot to something completely unrelated to any skill or knowledge they already have.

Jenny Blake describes it best in her book Pivot.

Think of a basketball player in the triple threat position. Where they can pass, shoot, or dribble. They stand on their pivot foot. That’s the foot anchored the ground. Their other foot can move around freely allowing the player to spin around.

A pivot starts with being grounded in something you know. That’s why you pivot to an adjacent possible. So you can leverage everything you already have to minimize risk and maximize potential for success.

Steve Jobs had a quote which described adjacent possibles and pivots in his Stanford commencement address before his death:

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”

The journey of pivoting to adjacent possibles has no clear path or direction. You can only see 1 or 2 steps ahead at best. It is like driving at night in the American West. Open land everywhere and very little light.

All you have are your headlights. They shine 200 feet ahead. That’s all you can see. But that’s all you need to get to where you want to go.

I’ve often called myself a rogue. I don’t care for what is expected or what one should do. I went to college to study game design. I loved games. I tried making games. I made a website instead. I learned about computers and programming. Making games was in the adjacent possible so I went for it.

But I didn’t finish my degree in game design. My degree is in marketing. Marketing was a different adjacent possible. Making a website introduced me to marketing and promotion and I enjoyed it.

Trying to create a magazine. A comic book. A website. All those things led me to read about entrepreneurship.

But I never got a job in marketing. I did get my career in video games. I’ve worked on games played by millions of people from children to adults. I learned much along the way.

Now I’ve started my own game company.

Looking backwards I can see all the adjacent possibles and pivots that led me to where I am. But nothing was ever sure when I was making those decisions.

I just took it one pivot and adjacent possible at a time.

Have unexpected life experiences only made sense to you looking backwards? Let me know in the comments below!