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10.09.10

The Origin of Good Ideas

In his new book, bestselling author Steven Johnson lays out the history and sources of innovation. He speaks to The Daily Beast about how to cultivate your inner light bulb.

In his new book bestselling author Steven Johnson lays out the history and sources of innovation. He speaks to The Daily Beast about how to cultivate your inner light bulb.

The question, "Where do good ideas come from?" should not, by all rights, be answerable in 246 pages. It is a profound epistemological question on the nature of knowledge and the human brain's ability to stir it around and mold it into something new—ideally, something useful. But in his new book, Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson offers a compelling new survey of how we think, dream, and create today.

And light bulbs flicking on over people's heads have very little to do with it.

Sure, good ideas sometimes happen that way, but even then it is only because they were fostered in the right kind of environment. Sparks of brilliance, Johnson argues, are actually more like slow burns that develop in places, such as universities, that are teeming with ideas. Even wrong ideas help. An expectant genius waiting for the muse to deliver a fully formed, humanity-advancing idea into his lap can be kept waiting for a long time. Things like evolutionary theory, the internet, and the printing press did not appear miraculously in a dream. Or on a piece of burnt toast.

With overtones of modern philosophy—think Foucault's work on paradigms of research—and the conviction that the interconnectedness of knowledge is an "infectious and crucial" concept, Johnson's model hinges on seven factors, like liquid networks, serendipity, and slow hunches. Taken out of context, it would be easy to dismiss them as the contrived abstractions of a self-help manual. But understood together, interspersed with pointed historical anecdotes, they form a sweeping model that maps out the different roads to fresh ideas.

"I didn't want it to be a straight sort of business, self-help, management-type book—which I have no interest in writing," he says. "I did want it to have a feeling where you read it and think, 'Oh yeah, I could use that.' When you succeed in writing an idea-book, it becomes this platform that other people get to build on, or take and put to new uses."

On the final page of the book, he summarizes how the abstract patterns can be applied practically in everyday life to foster more creative, open environments. "Go for a walk," he writes, "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."

book-cover---robinson-good-ideas
Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation By Steven Johnson. 336 p. Riverhead. $26.95. ()

But underlying all of those is the critical concept of the Adjacent Possible, the sobering, mature idea that not everything is possible right away. The phrase, borrowed from the theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman, indicates what can be unlocked with the theories, material, and knowledge that are currently available. It explains, for instance, why several inventors often hit upon the same idea around the same time without communicating to each other—that particular innovation was within the adjacent possible.

As Johnson explains, think of it as being in a room with many doors, each leading to another room with a set of doors of its own, leading to more sets of multi-doored rooms ad infinitum. The point is that not every location is immediately within reach from the room you're standing in. The Adjacent Possible is, at its core, an argument for perspective. On one hand, it teaches us that to innovate we have to "experiment at the edges of the present state," Johnson said last week. "But it's an expression of limits, too, in that you can't leap ahead too far."

Reboot America! The Daily Beast Innovators SummitThe principle has that sparse, of-course-it's-right elegance that scientists always strive for. And it is at the very center of Johnson's model. The environments he goes on to describe lay out the best conditions for identifying and reaching the adjacent possible, for opening that next door.

For Johnson, Good Ideas has been in the adjacent possible for some time now. Despite his grounding in modern philosophy and English literature—he ultimately ditched a Ph.D. course at Columbia to start Feed, an early general interest online magazine—he took an interest in popular science. As a result, his six previous books have revolved around technology and scientific history, with topics ranging from mass media to the inner workings of the human brain. In 2007, he used London's 19th-century cholera epidemic, The Ghost Map, to document the rippling effect of a single scientific idea and how it reshaped an entire city. "So I realized while I was writing that book that I was developing a little theory about the environmental roots of good ideas," he says.

And the slow maturing of that theory in bits and pieces made laying down an original theory of innovation less intimidating than it sounds.

"I've been thinking about a lot of these issues, in some ways, for 15 years," he says. "It was maybe a little less daunting because I've been working with a lot of these themes for a long time."

Johnson adds that each of his previous titles has been wildly different from the one preceding it, but that this project allowed all the loose threads to converge. He called it the culmination of all his books so far. "So I may just quit and write vampire fiction after this."

Joshua Robinson is a freelance writer based in Manhattan. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and Sports Illustrated.