October 25, 2010

What I'm Reading


Where Good Ideas Come From, by Steven Johnson

Lovely little read. He ranges freely across epochs of human innovation to generalize about the circumstances under which we do our most innovative work. Notable points:

  • The slow hunch: We tend to think great ideas burst from nowhere, but he says, au contraire, such ideas tend to emerge gradually, crystallizing when they bump into other ideas that supply the missing pieces.
  • The adjacent possible: The Next Thing is usually next door. Ideas that represent huge leaps or require nonexistent technologies usually have to wait a long time before being realized.
  • Write everything down (Duke Ellington knew this, too). New to me: the idea of the common book, in which thinkers like John Locke kept an ongoing record of ideas and quotes that they found important. It's a great way to allow the slow hunch to mature.
  • Look everything up

He makes that case that innovation happens when people from multiple disciplines mix freely and in large numbers (the coffee houses of England, Building 20 at MIT) and describes how platforms, once available, are repurposed (coral atolls, the Web).

Much of the information is familiar, but he marshals it well to make his case, and he's an eloquent writer. Highly recommended.