What kind of environments breed innovation? How do breakthroughs happen? What sparks a flash of brilliance? Steven Johnson tackles these questions in Where Good Ideas Come From by finding common patterns among inventions like the lightbulb, pencil, Word Wide Web, and a bunch more.
Johnson's top-down approach at distilling the conditions that create innovation is presented in a really nice and structured way. It would be hard not to walk away from this book with at least a small shift in mindset. Below are the quotes and ideas that especially stuck with me.
If any of these resonate with you, I highly recommend checking out the accompanying TED talk which elaborates on each point a bit.
In Three Sentences
Where Good Ideas Come From investigates innovation hubs throughout history and pulls out approaches and commonalities that appear at the origin. It debunks the 'Isolated Genius Eureka moment' and replaces it with slow hunches and serendipitous collaboration. Good ideas are out there for the taking — you just need to shape your environment to be the type that generates them.
The Adjacent Possible
- Good ideas are built out of a collection of existing parts.
- Explore the edges of possibility that surround you. Often this means switching up your environment, seeking out a different network, or building new habits.
- The trick to having good ideas is not to sit around in isolation thinking big thoughts. The key is to get more parts on the table; then explore combinations of them.
You begin in a room with four doors, each leading to a new room that you haven’t visited yet. Those four rooms are the adjacent possible. But once you open one of those doors and stroll into that room, three new doors appear, each leading to a brand-new room that you couldn’t have reached from your original starting point. Keep opening new doors and eventually you’ll have built a palace.
- Good ideas come from networks. Networks must be large enough in magnitude and capable of adopting to new configurations.
- The people and things around you control the flow of information into your mind. Realize that external sensors are important pieces of the puzzle. You can't do it all by yourself.
- Office set-ups are an example of this. The most innovative companies build water coolers first, then design the office around them. Good ideas often come from serendipitous discussion.
On a basic level, it is true that ideas happen inside minds, but those minds are invariably connected to external networks that shape the flow of information and inspiration out of which great ideas are fashioned.
The Slow Hunch
- Good ideas develop slowly over time, often without us realizing until much later.
- Most ideas start out incomplete. They have some bits of greatness, but lack pieces to the puzzle. The secret to handling this predicament is simple: Write everything down.
- Document your continuous effort to make sense of things. The world is full of signs. In order to read those signs, keep an account of your readings and ideas.
In its most customary form, “commonplacing,” as it was called, involved transcribing interesting or inspirational passages from one’s reading, assembling a personalized encyclopedia of quotations.
- The brain has an appetite for generative chaos. Some say that the more disorganized the brain is, the smarter the person is.
- Serendipity completes hunches, identifies possibilities that you previously overlooked, and brings together obscure combinations of ideas. Create serendipity where you can.
- The most straightforward way to create serendipity is to foster an open, collaborative environment. Open networks create an architecture for good ideas to connect.
Serendipity needs unlikely collisions and discoveries, but it also needs something to anchor those discoveries. Otherwise, your ideas are like carbon atoms randomly colliding with other atoms in the primordial soup without ever forming the rings and lattices of organic life.
- Great minds make more mistakes than less vigorous ones. Quantity wins out over quality here.
- Being right keeps you in place. Being wrong forces you to explore new possibilities. It forces you try new, creative things.
- Good ideas are more likely to emerge in environments with a certain amount of noise and error.
When we’re wrong, we have to challenge our assumptions, adopt new strategies. Being wrong on its own doesn’t unlock new doors in the adjacent possible, but it does force us to look for them.
- Good ideas stand on top of previously implemented, good ideas.
- Platforms give you the opportunity to go a level deeper than you would have been able to otherwise. They don't just unlock new doors, they open up new buildings to explore.
In a funny way, the real benefit of stacked platforms lies in the knowledge you no longer need to have. You don’t need to know how to send signals to satellites or parse geo-data to send that tweet circulating through the Web’s ecosystem. Miles Davis didn’t have to build a valved trumpet or invent the D Dorian mode to record Kind of Blue. The songbird sitting in an abandoned woodpecker’s nest doesn’t need to know how to drill a hole into the side of a poplar, or how to fell a hundred-foot tree. That is the generative power of open platforms.
I remember stumbling upon Steven Johnson's talk on good ideas years ago and thinking that it was great. This book rekindled those concepts that left an impression on me once before. If you enjoyed this and are looking for more, Poor Charlie's Almanack (expensive, but worth it) is an excellent related read that happens to be one of my personal favorites.
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