Book Review: Where Good Ideas Come From: Steven Johnson

Posted on January 31, 2011

There are real factors that lead to the formulation of good ideas.

Steven Johnson is really into ideas. He has written previously about emergence, how we figured out where cholera came from and how we discovered what air was made of. Now, in Where Good Ideas Come From, The Natural History of Innovation, he goes meta.

The book is divided up into 7 chapters, each revolving around a certain factor, he maintains, that is present when good ideas develop. Let’s walk through them, shall we?

The Adjacent Possible

Simply put, you have to be able to implement the idea. You’re not going to invent the phone if you don’t have electricity. Youtube can’t happen on a 14.4 kBs connection.

Liquid Networks

You have to be part of a system where information moves and flows and has access to many different thought processes. Companies (like Google and Apple) do so well because they try to get as many hands on a project as they can. A lack of a liquid network is chiefly to blame for 9/11.

The Slow Hunch

Sometimes, when you come up with an idea, it feels like you’ve been working towards it a long time. You’ve been on the edge of finding it out for years, and then, all of a sudden, you’ve got it! That’s the slow hunch. It’s that biting feeling that’s buried deep in your mind that drives you to study things. You know that there’s a solution, you just don’t know what it is.

Serendipity

Sometimes you get lucky. I’m looking at you Alexander Fleming. However, note that serendipity is useless unless you know what you’re looking for. Also, sometimes something just comes to you.

Error

People with good ideas spend a lot of time getting their bad ideas out of the way. Good ideas also stem from understanding why bad ideas don’t work. In short, to be a success, fail faster.

Exaption

Exaption is a biological term for when something evolves for one use, but then gets used for another. Feathers probably started as a heat regulator, but then are pretty good for flying. Gutenberg used the screw in the wine-press to make the first printing press.

Platforms

You’ve got to have room to work. Darwin wouldn’t have come up with his discovery if he hadn’t been on the Beagle. Scientists aren’t going to have ideas unless they have equipment.

Solid book. I’m reading ‘Blink’ at the same time too, so it’s very interesting to read very similar concepts being thrown around. The difference between this and ‘Blink’? ‘Ideas’ is exhaustively sourced with some great anecdotes of science-yore. In fact, part of the fun of this book is understanding how Johnson keeps track of his ideas and sources.

Quite honestly, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed myself. I thought I was going to be reading a bunch of conjecture, but there is a great deal of reasonable science behind Johnson’s ideas. If you want your thinking to go a step ahead, I would recommend this book.

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