Field Notes: 32 Podcasts to Inspire the Adjacent Possible

Welcome to entry two of Field Notes from the Adjacent Possible! I’ve written before about my love of the “adjacent possible,” the potential and serendipity created when you notice and connect the unlikely.  I think the power of the adjacent possible is in how it can open up our apertures to new and different ways of seeing and understanding the world, and thus new and different ways of being and doing, embracing possibilities and trying new ways of problem-solving. 

My belief is that the foundation for working in new ways is continuously practicing an openness to the world.  I recognize that as an individual, I'll never understand the world fully on my own.  However, the more that I engage with the experiences and perspectives and stories of others, particularly those who are different than me – whether they are those who live today, or historical figures, or in some cases fictional characters -- the better my understanding of the world will be. (For those that wonder about the power of fiction, I’m an advocate for the philosophy laid out in this recent Fast Company piece The Best Business Book You’ll Read All Year Will be a Novel).

In addition to helping to develop a bigger and more nuanced sense of the world, the adjacent possible can (though it doesn’t always) also expose us to the different processes and methodologies for solving problems, developing strategies, and creating new realities. And this makes sense.  When we’re only aware of one or two methodologies, we use them in every situation – even if it’s been tried before, or isn’t the right tool for the job at hand.  So sometimes we have to look outside our training and experience, our industry, sector, geography or culture.

One of the ways that I love to explore different topics and industries, eras of history and life experiences is through podcasts. 

In the last couple of years there has been an explosion of podcasts, and I am constantly amazed by the number of connections I’ve identified between episodes of podcasts I’ve listened to and the work that I’m doing.  Sometimes it informs how I do things, but at other times, it means that episodes become part of the resources I am sharing with clients and colleagues and friends.

That being said, I, like everyone else, do have my biases. In almost all my work, I’m less interested in the expert than the learner/explorer/doer so I tend to steer clear of TedTalks and famous CEOs who espouse advice.  And there are a A LOT of podcasts, and topics/genres of podcasts out there that I have never found my entry point to (so if you have recommendations, please post them!) 

Also, in keeping with Optimistic Anthropology’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, and in light of the fact that podcasts in the U.S. are predominantly hosted by white men,  I also wanted to make sure that this list looks as much like our country as possible.  I did a little analysis of the race/ethnicity and gender of the 32 podcasts I’m recommending.  Who is featured on 3 of them rotate enough that it was difficult to assess (Pop Culture Happy Hour and 30 for 30 and Showcase) and 2 are fiction podcasts which feature ensemble casts (Deadly Manners and Homecoming).  Of the other 27 shows I’m recommending here, 15 (or 54%) have a host or co-host who identifies as female, and 11 (43%) have a host or co-host who identifies as a person of color.

What podcasts do you recommend that inspire the adjacent possible?  Post them in the comments or share them on social media using #adjacentpossiblepod

Here are 32 Podcasts that are inspiring the adjacent possible for me!

30 for 30 Podcasts

Topic: Sports

Created by ESPN first as a documentary series, the podcast has had two seasons of delving into sports stories that are often about much more than sports.

Recommendation: On Thin Ice

99% Invisible

Topic: Design

How I’d Describe It: The hidden design behind everything from the click an iPhone makes and the Portland airport carpet to LA's Skid Row and Barcelona's La Sagrada Familia

Recommendation: Mexico 68

A Piece of Work

Topic: Art

How I’d Describe It: Broad City co-creator and star Abbi Jacobson is a delightful and enthusiastic hostess exploring modern and contemporary art at MOMA

Recommendation: #3: How Questlove Learned to Love Silence

Code Switch

Topic: Race & Identity

How I’d Describe It: Exploring race and identity and how it connects to current events and our history.

Recommendation: Disrespect To Miss-Respect


Topic: Crime

How I’d Describe It: Stories of people who’ve done wrong, been wronged, or gotten caught somewhere in the middle.

Recommendation: I honestly love virtually all of them, but Final Exit, Triassic Park, and Deep Dive should get you hooked.


Deadly Manners

Topic: Fiction

How I’d Describe It: A 1950s style radio play  about a murder mystery during a dinner party.  And it’s voiced by lots of famous folks including Kristin Bell and RuPaul.

Recommendation: Start at chapter 1.

Ear Hustle

Topic: Life in Prison

How I’d Describe It: One of my favorite podcasts from 2017 is about life inside San Quentin State Penitentary in California produced by two inmates and an artist volunteer. These stories are funny, heartbreaking, and honest.

Recommendation: Start with episode one: Cellies

Gilmore Guys/The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel Goys

Topic: Pop Culture

How I’d Describe It: A couple of years ago, Netflix started streaming one of my favorite television shows, Gilmore Girls. Two 20 - something men, one a fan (who was home school) and the other who never had seen it (a London-born, Texas-raised son of African immigrants) watch and talk and get off topic about every episode.  Kevin returned with comedian Alice Wetterlund to talk about "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel's" first season. Only recommended for those who really want to get into the minutiae of these shows.

Recommendation: 514 - Say Something (with Brock Wilbur) - There are so many episodes of this podcast and they are so long, but I attended this live show, so it's memorable for me.

Heaven’s Gate

Topic: History & Religion

How I’d Describe It: Another favorite from 2017. In 1997, thirty-nine people took their own lives in an apparent mass suicide. The events captivated the media and had people across the planet asking the same question...‘Why?’ 20 years later, those who lost loved ones and those who still believe - tell their story. Hosted by Glynn Washington of Snap Judgment who brings an incredibly empathy and curiosity to the series.

Recommendation: Gotta start with episode 1.


Topic: Personal Stories

How I’d Describe It: Jonathan Goldstein helps people go back to when everything changed and try and understand why.  Sometimes it's funny, sometimes it's heartbreaking.

Recommendation: #6 James


Topic: Fiction

How I’d Describe It: An unfolding conspiracy thriller, though it's never clear who you can trust. Also, David Schwimmer is an amazing voice actor.

Recommendation: It's serialized so you have to start at episode 1.

Hurry Slowly

Topic: Productivity & Creativity

How I’d Describe It: A podcast that explores how how pacing yourself is the key to being more productive, creative, and resilient.

Recommendation: 009: Tyler Cowen – The Quiet Dangers of Complacency


Topic: Science & Medicine

How I’d Describe It: Unseeable forces control human behavior and shape our ideas, beliefs, and assumptions. Invisibilia—Latin for invisible things—fuses narrative storytelling with science that will make you see your own life differently.

Recommendation: The Problem with the Solution

Judge John Hodgman

Topic: Comedy

How I’d Describe It: Judge John Hodgman doles out fake internet justice and some useful wisdom over silly interpersonal disputes.

Recommendation: Episode 194: Do You Want to Hoard Some Snowglobes?

Dear Franklin Jones

Topic: History

How I’d Describe It: This is a brand new podcast and only the first episode is out.  But Jonathan Hirsch was raised following a controversial spiritual leader. He left when he was 16, but now he wants to understand it better and how his parents came to be members.

Recommendation: Serialized, so start at the beginning.

Magic Lessons with Elizabeth Gilbert

Topic: Creativity

How I’d Describe It: Author Elizabeth Gilbert coaches people who have written in about their creativity blocks, interviews an artist who works in a similar medium, and checks in with the coachee a few months later to see how things are going.  She gives some really great advice.

Recommendation: 201: You have a Screaming, Not a Calling

My Dad Wrote a Porno

Topic: Comedy (NSFW)

How I’d Describe It: Jamie discovered that his father was writing and self-publishing erotic novels on Amazon under the pen name Rocky Flintstone.  He enlisted two of his best friends and each episode reads a chapter out loud while they comment on it.  It is deeply un-erotic, and very funny.  (Even my mom laughed, though she said it wasn’t “for her.”)

Recommendation: Serialized, so it's worth starting at the beginning.

Pop Culture Happy Hour

Topic: Pop Culture

How I’d Describe It: Twice a week, a mix of NPR culture writers talk about tv, movies, music, and other topics in pop culture.

 Recommendation: It's pretty tied to the latest in pop culture, so listen to the most recent episode and see if you like it.


Topic: Natural Sciences

How I’d Describe It: For a long time, this was my favorite podcast, and it's definitely helped to move the medium forward by weaving stories, science, and sound design in incredible ways.  Host Jad Abrumrad won a MacArthur Fellowship for it, though lately I've been more enamored with the project they've spun out More Perfect (next on the list).

Recommendation: Memory & Forgetting

Radiolab presents More Perfect

Topic: The Supreme Court

How I’d Describe It: Stories of the Supreme Court and some of its most famous characters and cases.

Recommendation: I've previously recommended "The Gun Show," so this time, I'll suggest: "Sex Appeal"

Reply All

Topic: Technology

How I’d Describe It: Stories about the internet and society that are super compelling, sometimes terrifying, and told by two men who have a charming love-torture dynamic.

Recommendation: #104 The Case of the Phantom Caller


Topic: Varies

How I’d Describe It: Showcase features original, limited-run series of all stripes, from emerging and leading producers around the world.  They've done three limited runs to date -- and I thought the most recent one, Secrets, was the best.

Recommendation: Secrets episode 1 – Discover a Secret

Song Exploder

Topic: Music

How I’d Describe It: A podcast where host Hrishikesh Hirway works with musicians to take apart their songs, and piece by piece, tell the story of how they were made.  These tightly edited 20-30 minute episodes feature everything from hip hop to indie rock to pop to music for films and television.

Recommendation: Episode 65: Clipping "Work Work"


Topic: Business

How I’d Describe It: A show about what it's really like to start a business. The first season followed Blumberg as he launched his podcasting company.  The format and companies that are featured have continued to evolve over each season.  But I think that season 1 and 4 (which follows disgraced American Apparel CEO Dov Charney as he tries to launch a new business) are the strongest.

Recommendation: Diversification of Worry (Season 4, Episode 1)

The Allusionist

Topic: Language

How I’d Describe It: For my fellow language, word, and grammar nerds, Helen Zaltzman leads us through a charming and sometimes moving exploration.

Recommendation: 62: In Crypt, Decrypt

The Pitch

Topic: Business

How I’d Describe It: Entrepreneurs pitch their companies to 4 investors live in a room, and we listen in as they make the call on whether to put money in.  Then we hear them debrief, and follow up with the entrepreneurs months later to check in.  I will say that in listening to all of these episodes, I’ve sensed something that is problematic in the treatment of women founders.

Recommendation: #14 Tushy

The Turnaround

Topic: Interviewing

How I’d Describe It: Jesse Thorn hosts an NPR show called Bullseye where he does in-depth interviews with creative people.  In the limited series The Turnaround, he interviews other famous interviewers about their process from Larry King and Terry Gross to Werner Herzog and Audie Cornish.

Recommendation: Episode 1: Ira Glass

This is Love

Topic: Love

How I’d Describe It: A new podcast from the makers of Criminal which investigates life’s most persistent mystery. Stories of sacrifice, obsession, and the ways in which we bet everything on one another.

Recommendation: There are only 3 thus far, so listen to them all.


Topic: History

How I’d Describe It: A history podcast that goes back to the time our divisions turned into The Civil War, and tells the stories left out of the official history.

Recommendation: Ep. 1 The Raid

What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law

Topic: Constitutional Law

How I’d Describe It: Roman Mars (of 99% Invisible) teams up with his neighbor and Berkeley Law Professor Elizabeth Joh to teach us Constitutional Law and how the Trump Administration is pushing up against our nation's norms.

Recommendation: The Appointments Clause and Removal Power

You Must Remember This

Topic: History

How I’d Describe It: Karina Longworth unearths the hidden and forgotten history of Hollywood's first century having down limited series on The Manson Family, Boris Karlov and Bela Lugosi, MGM's Golden Age, and Jane Fonda and Jean Seberg. She's a great researcher, writer, and narrator, and often brings a feminist lens to the work.

Recommendation: Listen to the series on the Hollywood Blacklist.

The Memory Palace

Topic: History

How I’d Describe It: Nate Dimeo is another great historian and researcher who unearths, writes, and narrates short vignettes from history that are very moving and engaging.

Recommendation: I've recommended "Hoover" before, so check out Episode 109: The Year Hank Greenberg Hit 58 Home Runs


What podcasts do you recommend that inspire the adjacent possible?  Post them in the comments or share them on social media using #adjacentpossiblepod