Acquiring accidental superpowers: the lesser known model of exaptation
How to co-opt the past to make a new future
Over lunch at a friend’s place, I marveled at the perfectly round pooris being served. I sneaked a peek into the kitchen and discovered that the shape came from the rim of a bowl used to cut circles out of the rolled-out dough. Now bowls were not made to stencil out dough. Turns out, nor were feathers meant to help birds fly (they developed to provide warmth and attract mates). Or play-doh for children to play with (originally made to wipe soot off walls in homes heated by coal). Or shampoo bottles designed to be used as ventilators to help kids with pneumonia.
We all are attentive to being intentionally successful. We select specific traits in goal pursuit, we hone them, and we acquire new skills where we are lacking. While that contributes to success, having the right traits or skills isn’t enough. Success is a lot more circumstantial that we would be comfortable admitting. A ton of great inventions across history did not first end up at their intended destination. Did that signal a dead end? Or lead to a commercially successful pivot? How can we follow the same model in our lives?
But first, what is exaptation?
Biology offers us plenty of examples of the accidental repurposing of a trait. Something called exaptation. Exaptation has an evolutionary origin. It refers to the unintended use of a trait that was developed for something else. For example, the gap between bones in our cranium was supposed to allow for our head to expand as we grew older, not help it be compressed as it passed through the birth canal.
Exaptation is often confused with its cousin adaptation. The difference is in intended use. Where a trait is developed and used as intended by natural selection it is adaptation. Where it ends up being utilized not as evolution dictated but in other unexpected ways, it is exaptation.
Why should we care about exaptation?
We may not always have all necessary resources at our disposal. Not the right toolbox or personnel or time or money. It is natural to be daunted by the absence or dearth of the ingredient that’ll complete the recipe. But in doing so “we get stuck in functional fixedness, a mindset where we see in things only their intended use, rather than their potential use.” Should we be willing to consider regular things in irregular ways, possibilities open up and failure becomes narrowly contextual, to the point of being irrelevant.
In 1856 malaria was the scourge not just in Britain but for British colonial armies worldwide. William Perkin, a young chemist, was working to find a synthetic substitute to quinine, used in the treatment of malaria. Instead, he ended up with a brilliant purple dye, gave up on synthesizing quinine, started a business, kicked off a trend for purple, and became a very successful entrepreneur. He had failed at finding an affordable treatment for malaria but had succeeded in a completely unexpected way.
Even though exaptation is all about repurposing limitations, as Perkin’s case illustrates, it becomes a lot easier to do so when we have a broad repertoire of skills that allows us to mix and match our talents in new ways. William Perkin was known to do some painting and it is not implausible that this background led him to experiment further into pigments and dyes. Another career chemist may have simply got back on track in the pursuit for synthetic quinine, and the world of nineteenth-century fashion would’ve been poorer.
Coronavirus-induced lockdowns saw a rise in home cooking and baking worldwide. What started purely out of necessity soon took on the manner of enterprise. From the UK to Australia, homecooks have made use of delivery apps and social media to run businesses out of their kitchens. These entrepreneurs have taken to recreating and sharing long-lost family recipes and local cuisines that are impossible to find in restaurants.
Finding unintended utility for pre-existing features is a great competitive advantage. Where others may struggle to acquire qualities to cope with a new or changing reality, rethinking the core functions served by our abilities can stand us in good stead.
What does exaptation teach us?
If you’re not chained to your plan, success is a pivot away
Burbn was a check-in site in 2010, like Foursquare. It allowed users to check in at a location they were going to, earn points while they hung out with friends, and post pictures of the meet-ups. In an early interview, the founder of Burbn remarks: “We decided that if we were going to build a company, we wanted to focus on being really good at one thing. We actually got an entire version of Burbn done as an iPhone app. But it felt cluttered, and overrun with features. It was really difficult to decide to start from scratch, but we went out on a limb, and basically cut everything in the Burbn app except for its photo, comment, and like capabilities. What remained was Instagram.”
Another case in point is Slack, the asynchronous business communication platform. My friend Mike Alcazaren who covered Slack on their tech podcast Product, Explained points out that “Slack is another product that was meant to be for something else. The founders were initially building a video game, and they had built a communications tool to help their internal teams move faster. The game failed, and now Slack is wildly popular.”
One pivot does not guarantee long-term success
It may seem like I’m contradicting myself, but the fact is that sustained success cannot be expected to come out of a single pivot. AOL Instant Messenger (or AIM) was an instant messaging service that took off in the late 90s. It was a side project by some of the engineers at AOL who repurposed extra server capacity to host AIM services. At the time, a free service such as AIM did not fit AOL’s business model and executives only reluctantly allowed it to continue given its market-hogging popularity. This tepidity showed in AIM’s “resistance to collaborate with outside developers or make AIM open source,” bringing about a swift end to the iconic messaging service as the era of social media apps dawned.
Side note: The benefits of pivoting are perhaps obvious to many readers of this piece, but I would argue that the agency to change course swiftly is highly provisional. Not always have we had access to technology that made it as easy for us to iterate upon an idea until it was sellable. Bubble wrap was first invented for use as textured wallpaper, subsequently tried as greenhouse insulation, with a ton of patents in between as the inventors began thinking of uses. It was only the launch of IBM’s 1401 computer series that inadvertently heralded the era of bubble wrap as packaging material.
Being a generalist has hidden benefits
Think of a group of specialists along one axis. Some are more skilled than the others. But they are all skilled in the same manner. With a generalist, new axes appear, each one with its unique kind of talent. When considering a problem, having a broad skillset enables a generalist to consider connections among these axes and invites happy accidents. When we have what David Epstein calls range, surprisingly positive offshoots can emerge out of failure, or out of underperformance in a chosen avatar. That is not to run down specialization but to suggest that intention is to specialization (adaptation) what serendipity is to generalization (exaptation).
Collective diversity leads to serendipity
Homogeneity, whether gender, genetic, social, or intellectual, is likely to trigger a sameness in response to external stressors. Its built-in uniformity is the breeding ground for groupthink. Heterogeneity, when managed well, can usher in diversity in thought that can be harnessed for the greater good. When we work with (or listen to) people unlike us, they help remove blind spots and spot opportunities faster/better. It is essentially range scaled up to the level of a collective.
On the behavioral economics podcast Choiceology, Dr. Katy Milkman sees the story of William Perkin as being alive to the unforeseen opportunities that sometimes emerge out of discouraging outcomes. At various junctures, William Perkin could’ve stuck to the path of what he was looking for. But he let himself be guided by his curiosity.
“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade” is the proverbial can-do spirit of those who are unwilling to remain chained to the original design of their lives. And like the crossing over from Burbn to Instagram shows, and the demise of AIM proves, the journey of innovation is both exaptation (finding, often fortuitously, that one killer feature in a product) and adaptation (intentionally perfecting it and scaling up as a commercial product).
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