Where Good Ideas Come From: Dorie’s Book Review

Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation exemplifies its premise perfectly: that true innovation comes from cross-fertilization with other disciplines, other people, and other viewpoints. Using science (and a look into the work of Charles Darwin, among others) as a jumping-off point, Johnson creates a fascinating and highly-readable sociological inquiry and primer for anyone who wants to juice their intellectual capacity. So what can spark your best ideas?

  • Density. As if Boston, my home city, needs more of an inferiority complex (see Globe business columnist Scott Kirsner’s New Year’s vow not to fret anymore about the advantages of Silicon Valley or New York City), Johnson cites compelling research by theoretical physicist Geoffrey West which suggested that “the average resident of a metropolis with a population of five million people was almost three times more creative than the average resident of a town of a hundred thousand.” (However, the Internet is diminishing the importance of literal, physical proximity. Johnson also mentions a phenomenon he calls the “10/10 Rule,” in which for past innovations such as TV, it took  “a decade to build the new platform, and a decade for it to find a mass audience.” These days, a YouTube or a Facebook can catch fire and achieve world domination in a fraction of the time, so perhaps there’s hope for Beantown.)
  • Talking with Colleagues. Where do scientists make most of their important discoveries? Not at the lab bench, says psychologist Kevin Dunbar, who literally tracked them with videocameras. Instead, the locus of innovation is the conference table. Writes Johnson, ““The group environment helped recontextualize problems, as questions from colleagues forced researchers to think about their experiments on a different scale or level. Group interactions challenged researchers’ assumptions about their more surprising findings, making them less likely to dismiss them as experimental error.”
  • Talking with Cool, Diverse Friends. Freud’s Wednesday night salons and Parisian café culture are prime examples of this phenomenon, in which friends from diverse disciplines “cross-pollinate.” Johnson writes, “Participants flock to these spaces partly for the camaraderie of others who share their passions, and no doubt that support network increases the engagement and productivity of the group. But encouragement does not necessarily lead to creativity. Collisions do – the collisions that happen when different fields of expertise converge in some shared physical or intellectual space.” Stanford Business School Professor Martin Ruef agrees. His research indicates that individuals with diverse social networks were three times more innovative than those with “uniform, vertical networks” (aka the same old bland people you know from work).
  • Reading More. Johnson praises Bill Gates’ habit of a taking a 1-2 week “reading vacation” per year, in which he brings a stack o’ books he’s been meaning to get through during the year and dives in. Reading a book every couple of weeks just doesn’t do the trick, says Johnson. You need ideas mashing together simultaneously to get the necessary friction.
  • Writing More. The “commonplace book,” a staple of the 17th and 18th century learned elite, gets a shout-out here. The idea? Says Johnson, “Transcribing interesting or inspirational passages from one’s reading, assembling a personalized encyclopedia of quotations.” Seeing how Faulkner juxtaposes with Stephen King and how Aristotle meshes with Tom Friedman can be interesting indeed. Also, Johnson talks about the “power of the slow hunch,” in which an idea (like Darwin’s take on evolution) germinated over time. He nearly had it for a year before it finally crystallized; writing it down can ensure you don’t lose your best ideas prematurely.
  • Doing More. The secret of great innovators, from Ben Franklin on down? Have lots of diverse hobbies. The information and skills you gain in one realm will redound to your benefit in another.
  • Sharing More. Overall, Johnson makes the case that “We are often better served by connecting ideas than we are by protecting them.” An “open source culture” in which IP considerations are put aside (at least somewhat) can spur better ideas for everyone (he cites universities as a prime example). Indeed, the very concept of a blog – and people (including me) writing for free – is part of the mix of ideas.

So, a summary straight from Johnson: “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.”

Now go forth and innovate! What are your best ideas for hastening new ideas?

Dorie Clark is a marketing strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the National Park Service. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.