The Adjacency Fallacy

Lately, I’ve been having quite a few conversations with people who are trying to reinvent themselves for the new economy. The most common pattern is MBA-types trying to reinvent themselves as entrepreneurial types. The second most common pattern is mid-career types who would normally be moving into either middle management roles trying to reinvent themselves as online lifestyle business types.

It took me a few data points to spot the pattern, but I eventually realized that most people navigating such moves don’t get stuck trying to acquire new, relevant skills. That is actually not quite as hard to do as people think. In many cases, you barely need any skills retraining at all. Often you need no new skills at all. You might even be able to drop some skills and get by with a subset of the skills you had to use before.

The sticking point tends to be something I call the adjacency fallacy: the idea that the roles that suit your personality and soft-skill strengths are likely to be socially adjacent to the one you are leaving behind. “Nearby” roles in some sense.  What sense precisely, we’ll get to.

Adjacency thinking works poorly even if you stick to the old economy. Over the years, we’ve seen the metaphor get increasingly complicated: from the “career ladder” to “lateral moves” to Sheryl Sandberg’s  notion of a “career jungle gym.” The last is a concept so byzantine, merely thinking of it exhausts me to the point of wanting to take a nap.

But adjacency thinking does not work at all if you’re navigating a path from old economy to new economy.

Striated and Smooth Career-spaces

Careers paths viewed in terms of ladders, lateral moves and and jungle gyms are a case of what Deleuze and Guattari call a striated space. That’s like moving through visible pathways that are designed for movement: roads, elevators, stairs, corridors. What Lars Lerup called a Holey Plane.

Career paths viewed in terms of pure physics and geometry, the way Bruce Willis views the Nakatomi building in Die Hard, are a case of what D&G call a smooth space. That’s like moving through visible pathways and through invisible ones, like air ducts, sewers, storm drains and such. Also simply creating a path by busting through walls when there are no visible or invisible paths, faking ids and so forth. Besides McLane, I’m told the Israeli military thinks of military tactics this way. As do Jason Bourne and James Bond 2.0.

(Aside to readers who’ve been badgering me about this for years now: can I have my D&G badge now please?)

Career paths live in career-spaces. At the coarsest level of resolution, striated views of career-spaces are defined by six major skill levels:

  1. Role swapping: “I want his/her job.”
  2. Role recombination: “I want to create this new job for myself by merging these two roles, and handing off that role to somebody else.”
  3. Internal boundary crossing: “I need to move to sales for a couple of years so they’ll take me more seriously in marketing.”
  4. External boundary crossing: “I need to go from the client side to the vendor side of the industry for a couple of years before I can continue moving up on the ladder on the client side.”
  5. Role importation: “If I can convince the CEO that we need a Chief Knowledge Officer like our competitor has, I can  define it the way I want.”
  6. Role invention: “We need a new C-suite role around SaaS/on-demand initiatives, with such and such functional and signalling attributes.  CSO is taken. So is COO. Oh, I know, CCO. Chief Cloud Officer.”

The first level is mostly ladder thinking. With the next two, lateral thinking comes in. With the last three, jungle-gym like elements enter the picture. Mastering a striated career space is rather like mastering the Starbucks drink-ordering protocol. There are millions of combinations, including very complex and impressive ones that challenge baristas and get you complexity-cred. And there may be legal drinks that nobody has ordered yet.

Smooth views of career spaces, by contrast, are not defined by levels at all, but by misuse of visible and hidden functions and social transgressions. A contemporary example would be a smart young person building an IT career recognizing that the CMO now spends more on IT than the CIO, and trojan-horsing their ideas into a marketing project. Or a CMO with temporary situational authority over some sales people (such as during a major event-marketing period) getting her way by bullying junior sales people into doing what she wants. Or a young up-and-comer ditching the golf course for the squash court by taking note of what sport senior executives actually prefer.

In the Starbucks analogy, this is like ordering an “illegal” drink, like I used to when I owned a 14 oz travel mug (in between their 12 oz Tall and 16 oz Grande sizes). Or using the bathroom without ordering a drink, because you happen to know the code. Or coming in and occupying a table with an old coffee cup.

Here’s the difference between striated and smooth career-spaces: navigating the former just takes intelligence. Navigating the  latter takes intelligence, creativity and balls.

Okay, that’s the setup. We all understand this stuff intuitively in the context of the old economy, even if we don’t always have convenient ways of talking about it. Let’s get back to jumping from old economy to new economy.

Climbing the Hills of Status

Whether you’re moving only through visible, legitimate pathways, or through invisible ones not meant for movement, or even busting through walls, your sense of objective value is determined by the striations in the landscape, even if your own mobility is not constrained by it.

I mean something very specific by objective value: stuff you want that other people also want. In other words, things that matter in determining social status. You might privately find great value in a plastic bag dancing in the wind, like the weird pre-hipster kid in American Beauty, but unless you take a video of the bag, package it right for YouTube, and market it, it has no objective value. From a status perspective, if a weird kid admires a plastic bag dancing in the wind and there is nobody to see it, it didn’t happen.

John McClane is clambering all over the Nakatomi building, but the value of his to path is still determined by the striated social space that says Hans Gruber is the bad guy, the nice people trapped in the hostage room are the good guys, and that the estranged wife Holly is the most objectively valuable entity in the movie. McCain can challenge the striated physical architecture of the building but not the striated social architecture that ascribes value to the people in it. His ascent to hero status through the movie depends on his not challenging the social structure, only the physical landscape.

In other words, how you get from A to will be different depending on whether you operated by a striated or smooth view of career-space. But the fact that you think is worth getting to at all, and the difference in value between and B, is a function of the “striations” in the landscape. That’s not about you or the creativity of your perspective and path-planning. It’s not about how ballsy you are in breaking, misusing or appropriating things for unintended uses.

It’s about the what society collectively agrees is socially valuable; what it uses to accord status for being at B, irrespective of how you got there. This is why Die Hard is fundamentally a drama, despite its comic moments, and Harold and Kumar go to White Castle is fundamentally a comedy, despite its moments of drama: the pair devote Die Hard levels of effort and complicated smooth-space movements to get to burgers, which are simply not worth that much trouble by any conventional valuation, unlike an estranged wife or the lives of hostages.

To understand this more intuitively, consider a very hilly city like Seattle, with lots of visible and invisible structure, as well as plenty of potential for  busting out your own path.

It doesn’t matter whether your view is smooth or striated: as far as the up-and-down movement is concerned, nothing you can do will reduce the energy required to traverse the vertical distance from to B. Short of somehow engineering a major regrade to level hills, you can’t choose to disobey the law of gravity: climbing is work, even if you use an elevator to do it.

Status works kinda like that. Short of an actual flattening of society through a systemic increase in egalitarianism, things valued in terms of status take a minimum amount of vertical climbing work that you cannot avoid.

(Geek aside you can safely ignore: social spaces marked by a universal, uncritical acceptance of the social order behave approximately like potential fields. If you ignore things like friction, the work required to travel between points in the space doesn’t depend on the path you take. If you include non-conservative forces like friction, the potential field sets a lower bound on work required. When friction is high in the striations, such as during traffic jams, or a terrorist taking control of building elevators and stairwells, “smooth” actions have an edge. When friction is low, “striated” actions have an edge. This is also the logic behind John Boyd’s reconceptualization of traditional “striated” fighter combat tactics in terms of much “smoother” E-M theory tactics, and maneuver warfare in general).

Adjacency in Status Space

Let’s get back to the adjacency fallacy. Why do we think we are best suited for socially adjacent roles? And why is it a fallacy?

Why do engineers consider technical management as a logical next step? Why do marketing people think a stint in sales can be helpful? Why do programmers think they should learn more math? Why do management consultants from McKinsey view senior executive roles as the logical next step.

Even a little thought — not even very difficult thought — reveals that beyond the simplest of ladder moves, these very common moves often involve enormous personality transformations and very tough learning curves. Marketing people and sales people are very different. Managing engineers takes very different skills from being a good engineer. Math knowledge can make you a bad programmer and vice versa. Counseling a senior executive and being a senior executive are very different games. We are generally blind to this difficulty because striated career-spaces appropriately lower expectations associated with such moves. You are expected to struggle somewhat.

So why do we make these moves and make our lives needlessly difficult?

Occasionally, true repurposability of skills is the reason. That’s why physicists go Wall Street. There’s genuine technical overlap in the mathematical skills needed and supply/demand dynamics do the rest.

Occasionally, it’s a matter of availability bias. Consultants often have the right contacts to get executive positions at former client companies and the high cost of executive searches does the rest.

Occasionally, it is a matter of domain knowledge. If you already know the widget industry from the buyer side, learning it from the supplier side is somewhat easier. Having better fodder to bullshit your way through interviews does the rest.

But mostly it is a matter of minimizing status work. You want to move in a way where your sense of status changes in a predictable way. Preferably upwards, but not too fast or too far. You want to minimize social disruption. You want to keep your old friends and change old status relationships smoothly. To a first approximation, you want to move from one certain status to a nearby, equally certain, higher-status position. One that stretches, but not break, your existing social bonds. At least not immediately. Once you have created new bonds at the new level, you can break old ones gracefully. You’re never without a set of well-defined relationships anchoring your sense of your own worth.

If you partition career-space into skill-space and status-space, it becomes clear that we mostly think of adjacency primarily in status-space. We are willing to pay extreme costs in skill-space to make movements in status space more predictable.

When you move in career-space this way, your social status is never in doubt. You go up down, sideways, climb a ladder, clamber over a jungle gym, move through a sewer or bust through a wall. It doesn’t matter how you move. What matters is the relative worth of start and end points. Just as you can clamber any way you want through Seattle and still maintain a sense of how high up you are, based on the work you’ve put into climbing. Reading traffic/friction patterns and choosing smooth or striated actions is merely about optimizing the path, not about choosing the destination.

But we don’t admit that we do this. We lie to ourselves that we are analyzing potential moves in terms of repurposability of skills, opportunity availability and domain knowledge. Therein lies the fallacy: we assume that adjacency in status-space implies adjacency in skill-space. We overstate domain knowledge advantages and blind ourselves to socially distant opportunities in order to fool ourselves that the fallacy is not a fallacy.

There are two possible reasons for this. One flattering and one not-so-flattering.

The flattering reason is that navigating by status alone is a good idea when visibility of opportunities is poor, skills-matches are hard to determine upfront and the value of domain knowledge in a new in-domain role is murky. Under such conditions, status is better than nothing, even when it leads to wildly poor estimates of how well you’ll do in a new role.

The unflattering reason is that we’re simply attached to status certainty. The idea of status dipping sharply on the path from to B, or worse, becoming overall more uncertain or even undefined during the transition, is anxiety-inducing. We pay huge costs to preserve status certainty levels (or more accurately, status illegibility levels) we are used to. All the analysis of skills, domain knowledge and opportunity visibility is wishful thinking or denial.

The truth is usually more unflattering than flattering.

The Valley of Anomie

There is an alternative to leveling hills and flattening society into an egalitarian utopia to avoid social-climbing work. Unlike in gravitational spaces, there is no universal “up” in status-spaces. Every “up” is relative to a social order. You can switch the direction of “up” by simply abandoning one social order for another.

Like every good villain, Hans Gruber in Die Hard is actually the hero of his own story. It is the hostages who are despicable and worthless people. Sacrificing them or lying to them in service of claiming money that, within his moral calculus, he is entitled to, is justified.

What if John McClane decided, halfway through the movie, that Gruber was right and law-abiding society was wrong? What if he changed sides?

That would be a revaluation. He would need precisely zero new skills to be effective in a new role as Gruber’s lieutenant. But he would need to value completely different things.  Up would become down, and down would become up in status space. Note that this is not as simple as seeing through a facade of value to inner, previously invisible corruption. This is about literally changing what you value. You don’t discover that there is ugliness hiding under beauty. You decide beauty is now ugliness and ugliness beauty.

It’s not quite Die Hard, but transitioning to blogging from any old-economy role requiring skilled writing (professional analyst, academic researcher, journalist, novelist) involves exactly the same writing skills, but different understandings of what is valuable. Informality becomes a virtue, formality a vice. Writing in a personal, somewhat confessional tone becomes a virtue, writing with distant authority a vice. Self-deprecation becomes a virtue, gravitas a vice.  Participating in discussions as an equal becomes a virtue, assuming authority in discussions becomes a vice.

I don’t know anybody who can write skillfully in formal, impersonal, authoritative ways, full of gravitas, but cannot turn all those things around at a skill level. What they struggle with is learning to flip values on their head. They already know how to turn a formal, academic sentence into an informal blogging sentence. What they struggle with is why they should do it.

One small step in skill-space, a giant leap in status-space.  If only it were that simple.

To buy into the logic of a different status hierarchy, you have to turn friends into enemies, enemies into friends. Signs and markers of worth and nobility must be recoded as signs of corruption and evil. What used to be markers of disrepute must now be proudly claimed as badges of honor.

It’s one thing to simply understand the logic of a different status-space. It’s quite another to decide to become a participant in it. Valuing things is an automatic and instinctive act. To change how you value things requires changing how you see things. Imagine wearing glasses that show admirable things in a green light and contemptible things in a red light. You walk around, instinctively avoiding the red and staying close to the green. Now imagine that you have to turn that around. You must head into the red and avoid the green.

This is not just difficult. It is nearly impossible. 

The only way to actually achieve a revaluation is to take off the glasses altogether and endure at least a period of no-glasses, while you build yourself a new pair with the wires crossed. When you eventually put those on, green will still be good, and red will still be bad. But previously green things will now appear red, and vice-versa.

The tough part is the period in between, what I call the valley of anomie. A period when you look around and cannot make any sense of what you see because there are no markers of value at all. It is also a period of overwhelming information overload, because the filters are off. Anecdotally, this period seems to last between six months and a lifetime. Whether you pass through quickly or make a permanent home there depends partly on whether you are a hedgehog or a fox. If you have strong views, weakly held, you will transition quickly, if painfully. If you have weak views, strongly held, you’ll come to see the valley of anomie as home.

An MBA may well have excellent statistics skills, domain knowledge of an industry and visibility into lots of opportunities. But to make the mind-shift into entrepreneurship, he has to learn to see MBAs still jungle-gymming in the old economy with contempt instead of reverence; their priorities as perverse instead of appropriate; their suits as empty.

A paycheck-employee-turned-lifestyle-businessperson may be doing new work that is indistinguishable from old work at the level of skills. But to make the shift, he has to learn to see paycheck jobs as stifling prisons, conference-attending as stimulating rather than tedious, selling as a rewarding challenge instead of grubby, menial work.

I’d estimate that today, about 20% of working adults in America are making their way slowly through the valley of anomie to varying degrees.

If you make it through the valley and rediscover a sense of “up”, you’re set to return to your old world as either disruptor or a reformer. Or go looking for new things to do that conform to your new sense of values.

But you might not make it through.

The thing about the valley of anomie is that it can break your status instincts altogether, which is why you might end up there forever and come to think of it as home. You may be unable to unironically value anything anymore the way any group does.  You may be able to participate competently in multiple social orders, but your sense of “up” is fundamentally artificial, not natural.

This mercenary path appeals to very few. But the consolation of the path is that you are now free to actually consider things like skills, information availability and domain knowledge in unsentimental ways.

For the priceless things in life, you need a clear sense of up. For everything else, there are simply offers you can and cannot refuse.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. To buy into the logic of a different status hierarchy, you have to turn friends into enemies, enemies into friends.

    In most circumstances, the first is much easier than the second. In other words, it’s far easier to burn bridges with your old hierarchy than to be accepted as a valuable member of an opposing hierarchy. An MBA may try to join the entrepreneurs but find that all his habits and status markers code to entrepreneurs as “empty suit”. That’s probably why people are so reluctant to try it.

    Then again, I’ve been living in the valley of anomie as long as I can remember, so what do I know?

  2. Venkat, why don’t you use Oxford commas?

  3. There’s a clever hack I’ve learned moving between mutually incomprehensible status zones, where one of those status zones (say, Silicon Valley startup culture) has an accepted premium in the broader culture. When executed properly, this provides a clean way to make significant status gains in the “less-premium” culture for relatively little time-effort if one had stuck dutifully to climbing existing status ladders.

    The trick is to *feign* an upwards movement in the premium status zone, and return home with Campbellian-esque knowledge to share with your starting less-premium status zone. It works because insider status movements in the premium zone are impossible to verify or disprove outside of it. The feigner can then spin his newfound knowledge as a Campbellian sharing-what-he-learned, or craft a reformer story about excess and the folly of youth. You see this a lot in “silicon prairie” VC types — I went to Silicon Valley and all I got was this lousy re-affirmation of midwestern values.

    I suspect this trick correlates with one of the oldest folkways in American culture — move to the coasts, dick around in your 20s, then come back to the midwest to start your “real” life with the newfound knowledge that family, Christ, et all are what *really* matter.

    The funny thing is what happens when Anomie-PTSD is so intense that it can transform even a hardened sociopath into a clueless reformer in their home status zone. In an earlier post, Jordan outlined a process by which a loser becomes clueless. I wonder if, in a fatalist sense, time (or Moloch, if you prefer) makes clueless out of all of us.

  4. Another great systemic provocation of thought. I had to go back and read the exposition on fox/hedgehog to correlate my experience with my views/hold stance. I am a fox who believes I should be a hedgehog, but cannot organize my many domains of knowledge/opinion into a single world view. I also find myself stuck in the Valley of Anomie. I cannot transition from a watcher of the revolution to a revolutionary until the new values are embraced. But like your mercenary, I seem to question whether anything is of sufficiently lasting value to galvanize me to act. Perhaps one of the reasons foxes get stuck in the valley is because collecting data for the one unorganized database can propel one to ignore or avoid the inflection points that lead to value assessment. That would be especially true if one favored smooth movement to striated movement. It is easier being an anarchist and tearing down old constructs than being a revolutionary and building something new. I am a merciless critic of all things false or flawed; but I do not want to be a dystopian, while I categorically reject the possibility of utopia. Venkat, much thanks for another essay that compels me, and I hope others, to greater insight and self awareness.

  5. This is why I value stuff like complementary bread.

  6. One of the most brilliantly convoluted posts I’ve ever read! Which helps me refine the ideas behind career shifts. If that makes any sense.
    I loved reading this post, Venkat. Anyone who asks me about making sense of a career shift will now get directed to this post. If they can make sense of it, only then does the discussion go forward.

  7. Reading this through the lens of Donella Meadows’ 12 Leverage Points to Intervene in a System, the paradigm flip that turns black into white and wrong into right is leverage point #1, the most difficult change you can achieve, but with the biggest impact:

    (From Wikipedia)
    1. Power to transcend paradigms
    Transcending paradigms may go beyond challenging fundamental assumptions, into the realm of changing the values and priorities that lead to the assumptions, and being able to choose among value sets at will.

  8. “You can switch the direction of “up” by simply abandoning one social order for another.”

    This reminded me of “The enemy’s gate is down” in Ender’s Game.
    If you think of the enemy’s gate as across from you, then you’re both on equal terms, and you’ll tend to think about trading assaults. If you think of the enemy’s gate as above you, then you’ll think defensively as the enemy “rains down” on you. If you think of the enemy’s gate as down, then you’re falling towards their gate. You don’t have a choice but to think offensively because gravity is pushing you together, and you past the enemy, and you’d rather be alive following the inevitable encounter.