I’m an idea person. I love ideas. I love writing about them. I even love thinking about the whole concept of ideas, which I guess makes me a meta-idea person. So when I caught wind last spring that one of my favorite authors, Steven B. Johnson, was publishing a book called Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, I was immediately intrigued.
When I read the introduction, which talks about Charles Darwin’s enchantment with the amazing biodiversity of coral reefs and atolls, and promises to look into the biology of ideas, I was hooked. (Disclosure: I grew up on Kwajalein Atoll, a coral atoll in Micronesia, and received my undergraduate degree in Natural Sciences.)
Does the world really need another book on ideas and innovation? Yes, when it comes in the form of Where Good Ideas Come From. A lot has been written about ideas, how they stick and spread, and how to structure an idea so it does just that. But even bad ideas can stick and spread. What’s more interesting is to examine a good idea, a value-adding innovation, not from the standpoint of the outcome or effect, but from the genesis. That’s exactly what Mr. Johnson does, and in a very unique way: by unwrapping the environment—the space, place and context—in which some the best ideas in history have been incubated.
And incubation is a key word when you’re talking about where ideas happen. Sure, Philo Farnsworth was plowing a field in 1921 when the idea for projecting moving images line by line came to him, prompting him to use his knowledge of electrons and vacuum tubes and invent the first electronic television. And yes, Richard Feynman was watching someone throw a plate in the air in Cornell University’s cafeteria in 1946 when the wobbling plate with its red school medallion spinning around sparked the Nobel Prize-winning idea for quantum electrodynamics.
But these so-called Eureka moments of sudden genius, and the loci of where they finally “flashed,” is not what Mr. Johnson is talking about. In fact, he dispenses with the concept of Eureka moments altogether, relegating them to outlier status and downgrading their myths to “cartoon” class, because they don’t “just suddenly happen.” They evolve and emerge from many ideas built upon each other. Just like a coral reef.
Big Idea: Creative breakthroughs have, as the subtitle suggests, a natural history—one that exhibits important patterns visible related their birth place and space that becomes visible only by taking a "long zoom" look. The question—and the one driving Mr. Johnson’s enjoyable, story-driven narrative—is this: what is it about some innovation-generating environments that makes them so much better and more prolific at producing good ideas?
Key Takeaways: There are seven patterns to the development of good ideas, and Mr. Johnson devotes a chapter to each: (1) The adjacent possible; (2) liquid networks; (3) the slow hunch; (4) serendipity; (5) error; (6) exaptation; and (7) platforms. He makes all of them accessible to the everyman in his closing line:
“Go for a walk; cultivate hunches; write everything down, but keep your folders messy; embrace serendipity; make generative mistakes; take on multiple hobbies; frequent coffeehouses and other liquid networks; follow the links; let others build on your ideas; borrow, recycle, reinvent. Build a tangled bank.”
Liked Most: I like books that make me think, and this one did. This is Mr. Johnson’s most prescriptive work to date, but it’s far from a formulaic approach, which is a good thing. What I liked and respected most, aside from his talent in storytelling, is that Good Ideas has a subtle structure to it, a seven-dimension heuristic, but the reader is left to make his or her own meanings of the dozen of anecdotes that seem at times disparate yet suggestive of stronger connections, and that build on each other in just the way a coral reef is formed.
Liked Least: More gripe and grumble than actual criticism here. I felt at times I was working a little too hard to make strong connections from weak ties and too many anecdotes to track. That said, there’s a payoff, a reward for working hard: you get to experience something of ‘the slow hunch,’ one of the central arguments—that good ideas “fade into view.”
Must Read: In his Conclusion, Mr. Johnson plots on a 2x2 matrix “roughly two hundred of the most important innovations and scientific breakthroughs from the past six hundred years, starting with Gutenberg’s press.” The quadrants are labeled Market/Individual, Market/Network, Non-Market/Individual and Non-Market Network. You’ll be surprised at where the good ideas come from, and will be coming from in the future.
Best For: Anyone tasked with tapping the creative potential in others—and anyone wanting to tap the deepest wells of their own ingenuity—but have never given thought to their surroundings.
What Others Say: Good Ideas “is like one of the reefs that initially baffled Darwin and are so admired by Johnson—a huge diversity of bright ideas co-exist happily without destroying or spoiling each other.” John Gapper, Financial Times
Rating: 9.75 (out of 10)
Matthew E. May is the author of The Shibumi Strategy: A Powerful Way to Create Meaningful Change, forthcoming from Jossey-Bass. He blogs at MatthewEMay.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @matthewemay.