Monday, September 10, 2012

Where Good Ideas Come From

In case you haven't heard of Steven Johnson's book (Where Good Ideas Come From), the above video will get you started.

Here's a rough overview of some key ideas from the book:

1. The "adjacent possible": An inventor generally uses components that exist in the immediate environment, and these are sometimes conveniently adapted for non-obvious uses. Gutenberg used a wine press for his first printing press, for example.

2. "Liquid networks" and connectivity: Large cities, and now the Internet, make it possible for loose, informal networks to form, and these tend to enable discoveries.

3. The slow hunch: It can take years for a hunch to blossom into a full-blown invention.

4. Serendipity: A certain amount of luck helps, but bear in mind Pasteur's famous observation, "Chances favors the prepared mind." E.g., LSD, Teflon, Viagra, aspartame, Post-It notes. Fortunately, no one has a patent on serendipity.

5. Error: E.g., Lee de Forest's development of the audion diode and the triode was the result of erroneous thinking, and de Forest never understood how they worked. But the inventions changed the world.

6. Exaptation: Birds developed feathers to keep warm and regulate their body temperature, and only later used them for flight.

There's more, as well. For example, Johnson advocates keeping a journal of half-baked ideas (following no organizational pattern at all) that you revisit frequently over a period, potentially, of years.

Bottom line, the "Eureka moment" is a myth in the sense that most such "moments" are the culmination of many hours (and/or years) of rumination, cooperation, hunch-accumulation, and serendipity. It's process, in disguise.