Practical PKM

💰 Career Capital & The Adjacent Possible

Published 3 months ago • 5 min read

I really enjoyed listening to Cal Newport’s Deep Life podcast last week in which he interviewed entrepreneur Noah Kagan about his new book, Million Dollar Weekend.

During the interview, Cal & Noah started talking about the importance of trying a bunch of things since you never really know what’s going to work.

And if anyone would know, it would be Noah.

He was employee #30 at Facebook (worked directly with Mark Zuckerburg before getting fired) and employee #4 at before starting AppSumo, a website that helps entrepreneurs find good deals on business software without recurring subscriptions.

You can hear more of Noah’s story in the podcast episode if you’re interested. But what really caught my attention was a short phrase that Cal used to describe how Noah got from where he was to where he is:

The Adjacent Possible.

What is the Adjacent Possible?

I first came across the concept of the adjacent possible in the book Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson (I shared the book notes in last week’s newsletter). It’s basically a term to describe the options that are available to you right now (Steven Johnson calls them "first-order possibilities").

Imagine you’re standing in a room with a bunch of doors.

From where you stand, you can choose any of the doors to walk through. They are all possible options.

That’s the adjacent possible.

Thinking about the adjacent possible is helpful when you're trying to develop your ideas. That's one of the reasons I love the bidriectional linking in Obsidian so much. Once you create some intentional links between your notes, you can follow the chain and be inspired by how they connect, opening new doors to ideas that are hiding in the adjacent possible.

But the idea of the adjacent possible is also helpful when developing "career capital" (another Cal Newport idea from his book So Good They Can’t Ignore You).

Career capital is basically value you bring to the marketplace based on the skills you’ve developed. Since money is a neutral indicator of value, the more career capital you amass (and the more valuable you become to the marketplace), the more money you can make.

And more importantly (for me), the more control you have in crafting the life you want to live.

How I Built Career Capital By Embracing The Adjacent Possible

In order to develop career capital, you have to develop your skills. And not just any skills: skills that are valuable to the marketplace.

So how do you find out what’s valuable? By trying a bunch of things.

That’s what Noah Kagan did. He started several companies before he landed on AppSumo.

It’s also how I ended up as a full-time creator.

Back when I was working for the family business full-time (not long after I said "I guess I'm just not creative"), I had the idea to write a book. I had no idea how to write a book, but I figured I better get good at writing if I was going to pull it off. So I started getting up early and writing every day for an hour every day before I went into the office. Once I started writing (and publishing to my personal blog) every day, it was only a couple of weeks before I got the opportunity to write for other places online. That writing led to establishing relationships with people online who I eventually started podcasts with, the podcasts led to opportunities to produce screencasts & video courses, those courses led to opportunities to present live webinars and workshops, and those experiences led me to embrace something I never thought I'd do: public speaking.

(I actually ended up pretty good at public speaking. I even competed in the Toastmasters Humorous Speech contest once and made it all the way to the district finals, which included the entire state of Wisconsin the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. There I lost to a professional comedian, but also got connected to Aaron Beverly who coached me for a bit before winning the World Championship of Public Speaking.)

The whole journey looked something like this:

Writing → Podcasting → Video → Live Video → Public Speaking

But if you had asked me if I was interested in public speaking at the beginning, I would have said “No way!” When I started, I was terrified of the idea of speaking in front of people. Once I got there though, I realized that I can connect with people in a live setting better and leave a bigger impact, making it one of the most fulfilling things I've ever done.

The way I got there? At each stage in the journey, I embraced the adjacent possible. As a result, I had the opportunity to do something I never though I would do.

And I discovered that the things that are uncomfortable can actually be the most life-giving.

How to Leverage Adjacent Possible Opportunities Yourself

Derek Sivers has a rule: If something scares you, do it.

The lie we tell ourselves is that someone needs to open a door of opportunity for us. The reality is that opportunity is there waiting for us to embrace it in the adjacent possible.

We must summon the courage to go after it.

Consider your own situation. Where has fear held you back? What opportunities await you in the adjacent possible?

Faith and fear share the same definition: belief that what you cannot see will come to pass.

Faith attracts the positive, while fear attracts the negative.

It doesn’t matter if you’re 15 or 75. The only way to reach your full potential is to get uncomfortable.

Take a step of faith into the adjacent possible. You just might be pleasantly surprised to see what you’re really capable of.

Something Cool: Obsidian Co-Pilot Now Has Q&A Mode

Seems like AI is everywhere nowadays. One of the best implementations I’ve seen has been Notion’s Q&A which allows you to ask questions and Notion’s AI gives you the answers based on the contents in your Notion database. It’s a really cool way to quickly find answers from your notes, and can be really helpful when you don’t know right where something is.

And as of version 2.5 of the Obsidian Copilot plugin, you can now do this inside of your own Obsidian vault. It’s still in beta, but it’s pretty impressive. You can use several different AI models, and even run the whole thing offline if you want.

All of the setup instructions and examples can be seen in this YouTube video. It’s not for the faint of heart, but it is pretty incredible. Just be careful if you have a large vault as you have to use tokens to index your files before Copilot Q&A will work. Indexing large vaults can add up real quick.

My Notes From So Good They Can’t Ignore You

This might just be my favorite Cal Newport Book so far (though I haven’t finished Slow Productivity yet). I read it at a time when I was just starting to create online, and the idea of career capital really resonated with me. As I shared in this email, I think that idea translates to other areas of life as well. You don’t need to be trying to craft a new career in order to apply the principles toward lifestyle design, regardless of the stage of life you find yourself in.

If you want to learn more about the craftsman mindset and developing a mission for your life, this book is a good one. And if you prefer to listen, we covered this one for Bookworm a while back.

If you want to download my PDF notes for yourself, click here.

By the way, I have a whole library of these (186!) available in 4 formats inside my new community. I'm just about ready to open the doors, click here if you want to be the first to know when it's available.

— Mike

P.S. David & I are coming up on 200 episodes (!) for Focused. If you have any productivity struggles or questions you’d like us to answer in the podcast, let me know 😉 You can just reply to this email and I’ll make sure it gets added to our feedback list.

Practical PKM

by Mike Schmitz

A weekly newsletter where I help people apply values-based productivity principles and systems for personal growth, primarily using Obsidian. Subscribe if you want to make more of your notes and ideas.

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