I love my Amazon.com app for the Android! The day I heard Steven Johnson talking about his book Where Good Ideas Come From on NPR, I was able to pull into the closest parking lot and purchase it before I forgot the name of the book.
As Johnson and the interviewer talked about how Darwin’s theory of evolution ruminated and germinated in his brain, I could feel my brain starting to buzz with curiosity. Where do ideas come from? Are they sparks of brilliance or do they bloom and grow over time? Can we actually generate groundbreaking ideas on demand? I was hooked by the conversation and had to learn more than they were going to share in this interview.
Consume Steven Johnson’s Writing as You Would a Gourmet Meal
I find myself comparing books to food quite often, and this one is like a tasty nine-course meal. There are seven chapters – with an introduction and conclusion to serve as appetizer and desert respectively. I say it’s tasty because Johnson’s writing is both sophisticated and accessible at the same time. I feel like I’m describing a wine here. But in all sincerity, this is a book that truly serves as brain food, and you will consume and savor every word.
Johnson writes like I eat. I work my way around the plate; a bite of steak with a bite of potatoes and then a taste of veggies. This way I have a full experience of the entire meal and all its tastes, temperatures and textures.
That’s what it’s like to read Where Good Ideas Come From. There will be a paragraph about science followed by a paragraph about art followed by a paragraph about how the printing press was actually conceived as an offshoot of a wine press. This way you, as the reader, get the full experience of how ideas don’t just magically appear in full form; they begin in an embryonic state and then are fed by other experiences and thoughts you have. They mature and grow over time–often, unbeknownst to us. For example, Darwin had made unconscious allusions to evolution, but it was clear by his writings that even he wasn’t fully conscious he had hit on something so big and profound until years later.
In short, this is a book about innovation and the space where innovation occurs. Writes Johnson: “Some environments squelch new ideas; some environments seem to breed them effortlessly. The city and the Web have been such engines of innovation because for complicated historical reasons, they are both environments that are powerfully suited for the creation, diffusion and adoption of good ideas.” This is some heavy stuff and you’ll want to give yourself the time to read, think about and process what Johnson is saying on every page.
Interesting Concepts and Thoughts From Where Good Ideas Come From
The 10/10 Rule: The idea that it takes a decade to build a new platform and a decade for it to find a new audience. HDTV is the obvious example. I remember doing HDTV case studies as part of my marketing coursework in the 80s; 20 years later, it’s in my home.
Kleiber’s Law: You’ll learn about Max Kleiber, a Swiss scientist who measured the impact that body size had on metabolic rate. This is why animals with fast metabolic rates eat more and literally live “faster” than those with slow ones. This is why the lifespan of a fly is about 25 days and the lifespan of a turtle can be over 100 years. But that’s not even the cool part. Scientists from the Santa Fe Institute wanted to find out if Kleiber’s law applied to cities. Did cities slow down as they got bigger? The short answer is “not exactly.” There are some variables that increase as a result of being part of a bigger, more complex system – such as elements of creativity. So a city that was 10 times larger wasn’t just 10 times more creative, it was 17 times more creative. And a metropolis that was 50 times bigger was 130 times more innovative.
Tasty Tidbits Make for Educational, Informative and Entertaining Reading
There are hundreds of other examples and stories like the ones I described above nestled in the book’s 250 pages. And the research is so extensive that the Appendix looks to be another 50 pages or so. If you find yourself watching the Discovery Channel or the History Channel as you flip through television channels, this is a book you’d enjoy.
You don’t have to be a historian, a scientist or an academic to enjoy it. Johnson has done all the work for you, and will feed you all the information you need to be the most interesting person at your next dinner or cocktail party!
For More Information
I couldn’t find a website for Where Good Ideas Come From but I did find this really terrific four-minute summary video that you might enjoy. You can also see what Steven Johnson (@stevenjohnson) is tweeting about and follow him on Twitter.