ML Cavanaugh
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Lt. Col. ML Cavanaugh, PhD, is a nonresident fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Point. This essay is an unofficial expression of opinion; the views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of West Point, the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or any agency of the U.S. government.

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It turns out that the best things in life are, in fact, free, and that’s certainly true for ideas. Scientists and authors call it the “adjacent possible,” a term introduced by biologist Stuart Kauffman in 2002, and since advanced by the writer Steven Johnson.

Johnson defined it as 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.”

It’s the idea next door. Or one cubicle over. It’s spotting something in another environment and then refashioning it to fit one’s own circumstances. It works on many levels and couldn’t be more important to consider in both our public and private lives.

Take homeless policy. Right now Colorado Springs is engaged full-on with a wicked community challenge that afflicts cities all across the country. The bad news is this is really tough and likely a long-term struggle. The good news is that the city isn’t alone.

Other cities have made serious, significant, and sustained impacts in addressing homelessness, including in places like New Orleans, Albuquerque, Phoenix and Salt Lake City. Of course, there have been criticisms — but still, it appears these other cities have created programs that have reduced homelessness.

Programs that might work here: Colorado Springs can (and likely has) sent teams south and west to such cities to learn from their successes and failures — all to cut down on the dollars and hours that might be wasted pursuing dead-end solutions.

In my backyard, Manitou Springs has a beautiful Carnegie building that serves as the city’s library. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been updated since it opened in 1911 —it’s far too small for the community and it’s not accessible for the disabled. So when I wanted to learn how to fix that problem, I called around to other like-library buildings for inspiration and ideas in how they conquered the challenge. In doing so, I found out that Manitou’s library is the only non-ADA compliant library in the Pikes Peak region (and well beyond). Moreover, by hearing how a similarly sized community like Salida figured it out presented me with some potential paths forward. It gave me an example.

And the power of example is incredibly powerful. This seems to be how the ‘adjacent possible’ works. It shakes us up, prods us to ask basic questions like ‘why?’ or ‘why not?’. It rubs our noses in real-life, concrete possibilities. And showing us what life can be is always superior to telling us what to do. If a picture is a thousand words, then a useful example is at least a million.

The adjacent possible also scouts the way for us. It’s a ‘do ahead’ instead of the much more common ‘do-over,’ and can provide as powerful a picture of the coming road as a pathfinding drone. The German leader Otto von Bismarck once famously said, “only a fool learns from his own mistakes. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others.” If we’re lucky, the adjacent possible can do the same for us.

To many, this is common sense, but some stubborn few will always shrug off potential change as not applicable. Or they’ll argue that they’re so unique that such an idea could never apply to them. But if we’re open to experience, and keep our heads up and ears open, and we’re mindful we can adjust other solutions to our specific needs — we can make real gains — even when it comes to something as common and important as everyday cooking.

We had our neighbors over for dinner recently. With so many kids scurrying about, the meal was chock-full of spills and screams. But at some point, our neighbors noticed we had essentially loaded two large sheet pans with cauliflower and small potatoes into the oven. On retrieving them from the oven, we simply doused the vegetables with parmesan and feta to build a bit of flavor. Our neighbors were smitten, said they’d been struggling with finding healthy, quick, simple, cheap meals. And so on their way out the door, they thanked us for both the dinner, and the idea.

We told them we’d seen it at someone else’s house. And asked them to pass it on.

Lt. Col. ML Cavanaugh, PhD, is a nonresident fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Point, and co-edited, with author Max Brooks, “Winning Westeros: How Game of Thrones Explains Modern Military Conflict,” from Potomac Books. Connect at

Lt. Col. ML Cavanaugh, PhD, is a non-resident fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Point, and co-edited, with author Max Brooks, Winning Westeros: How Game of Thrones Explains Modern Military Conflict, from Potomac Books. Connect at

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