Where good ideas come from

Recently, I came across the book where good ideas come from by Steven Johnson. Johnson examines the process of building ideas from different angles. He analyses the more fruitful environments to generate ideas, factors that enhance the process of generating ideas, and the evolution of ideas in our brains among other aspects.

In general, I found the reading stimulating, especially the first six chapters. I enjoyed the way Johnson strings all the concepts together with examples of Darwin’s life and enrich the text with abundant examples of evolutionary biology.

I thought worth explain to you some ideas of the book. In the following sections, I discuss the ideas that resonated the most with me.

Adjacent possibles

The adjacent possible is the idea that from a specific state-of-the-art there is a limited number of first-order combinations or possible direct innovations. As a new combination is made, the number of potential combinations is expanded. In Johnson’s words “…at any moment the world is capable of extraordinary change, but only certain changes can happen.” “One way to think about the path of evolution is as a continual exploration of the adjacent possible.”

This concept leads Johnson to emphasize that “Good ideas are not conjured out of thin air; they are built out of a collection of existing parts”. This sentence reminds me of the ideas discussed in the book Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon, another worth-to-read book about creativity and innovation. Basically, this sentence reinforces the idea that we do not have to reinvent the wheel to be innovative if not work on top of the ideas that already exist. We only need to merge them and recombine them to give them a new shape, a new perspective.

As a scientist, I am familiar with this concept of adjacent possible since the scientific work consists in study a specific topic until the edge of knowledge and once you are there, you add our two cents to move the boundary a bit further. This knowledge expansion can be larger or smaller. It can have more or less impact. But it is always based on something that was existing before. Innovative ideas aren’t completely unconnected with previous knowledge.

Liquid networks

The liquid network refers to the environment where ideas are easily exchanged. Johnson arguments that ideas emerge from densely populated networks where ideas flow quickly between individuals. This continuous exchange of ideas makes possible random collisions where a great idea comes out of the combination of two average ideas. He states it as “…ideas happen inside minds, but those minds are invariably connected to external networks that shape the flow of information and inspiration out of which great ideas are fashioned.” And continues “This is not the wisdom of the crowd, but the wisdom of someone in the crowd. It’s not that the network itself is smart; it’s that the individuals get smarter because they’re connected to the network.”

I had never thought about ideas exchange in that way, but it completely resonate with me. When I have an idea, I like to discuss it with someone else. Even if the other person is unfamiliar with the topic it helps me to shape ideas. I find this useful for two reasons. First, because explaining your idea to someone else force you to put in words the idea you have in your mind, and this exercise alone already helps you to structure your idea and shape it in something coherent. Second, the listener takes that idea and mixes it with his own understanding of reality, twisting it slightly different from the way you explained to him. I find these small tweaks very useful and help me to flourish ideas out of the blurry germ that started in my head.

Johnson emphasizes that new companies are designing their work environments around common spaces where casual exchanges of ideas happen without formal planning to potentiate creativity/innovation between co-workers.

Slow hunches

The slow hunch is the term Johnson use to explain that ideas are not conceived completely at once, if not that they are partially shaped and by recombining with other partial ideas form the great idea. That’s why liquid networks are important. To allow the possibility of two partial ideas colliding. But more important than that, Johnson explains that these ideas do not necessarily coincide in time. Primarily, we collect ideas in our brain and carried for long periods until these ideas finally found a match. That’s why it’s important to keep notes.

Johnson explains how scientists in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries wrote commonplace books. Books where they wrote down their ideas, quotes, observations, and relevant information to which they come back from time to time to confront their own ideas, creating new connexions, and getting better ideas.

In my experience, writing down is a very powerful tool. Especially in the current fast-paced world in which we live. It amazes me about how quickly ideas change perspective in short periods. For example, in 2020, reflect on how your perspective changed before and after the coronavirus outbreak and the strict lockdowns imposed in most of the countries. Even in normal circumstances is fascinating to see how our ideas change as our understanding of the world evolves growing up.

Finally, writing down is very useful to realize how weak and easily manipulable our memory is. You can do a simple exercise. Try to remember the key ideas of a book you read six months ago. Write down in a paper what you remember and then go to the book and check how much your memory matches the ideas in the book. I am sure that there are parts that you have forgot and parts that you remember differently. That has happened many times to me and that’s why I keep a scientific library to come back to the source every time I need a refresh.


In words of Johnson, “…innovation prospers when ideas can serendipitously connect and recombine with other ideas, when hunches can stumble across other hunches that successfully fill in their blanks”.

I understand serendipity as the ultimate boost for an idea to take shape. The result of a successful unexpected collision of two ideas. In my experience, we can nudge serendipity by increase the number of possible collisions. Because out of many random collisions one will become a fruitful realization. So, when you want to increase your chances of serendipity you have to escalate the number of ideas colliding and with a little bit of randomness sooner rather than later something compelling will come up.


Johnson talks about two ideas, in this section. The error as a motor of innovation, in the sense of errors pushing you to explore a different approach because the current solution doesn’t work, and error at large scale because quantity leads to quality.

I am completely aligned with this vision. It’s difficult to innovate when everything is perfectly fine. There is no motivation to change. Error is the base of innovation. It’s what move us forward.

Besides, the queer quantity, following certain conditions, leads to quality. Regarding this concept is worth to quote the story of the ceramic class explained in the book Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland: “The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: 50 pounds of pots rated an “A”, 40 pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work—and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.”

It is statically demonstrable that when you produce many of anything, some will be better and some worse. A few will be disastrous, but a few will be extraordinary. And you just need one extraordinary to move forward.

Johnson documented many of the concepts of the book with examples from evolutionary biology. About errors, he illustrates these two concepts with the following example “…bacteria increased their mutation rates dramatically when confronted with the stress of low energy supplies. When the living is good, bacteria have less of a need for high mutation rates, because their current strategies are well adapted to their environment. But when the environment grows more hostile, the pressure to innovate—to stumble across some new way of eking out a living in a resource-poor setting—shifts the balance of risk versus reward involved in mutation. The risk of your offspring dying from some deadly mutation doesn’t look quite as bad if they’re going to die of starvation anyway.”


Exaptation is a term used in evolutionary biology to describe a trait that performs a function that was not developed for its current use by natural selection. It is the use of something for what was not designed. It extends the applications of an idea beyond what it was originally conceived for.

I found exaptation the easiest way to innovate. Steal ideas from one field and apply them to a different field. We can be dealing with a problem which is new in our field but may have been already solved a similar problem in another field. Expose yourself to ideas in different fields to boost your innovation.

This concept has always fascinated me. I love those stories where someone comes up with a new use of something completely unexpected from its original conception. For example, it comes to my mind the full-face diving mask from decathlon that was adapted by a team of scientists in Italy to create artificial ventilators during the shortage of the coronavirus. If you know other examples of exaptation please write it in the comments. I would love to read it.

Your turn

My goal with this blog is to show you how to build your scientific library not to storage papers if not to help you to be more creative/innovative as a professional of your own craft. I found the book where good ideas come from inspiring and I recommend you to read it and write your opinion in the comments.

How to build YOUR own scientific library

In this blog, I write about how to find, organize, and retrieve scientific studies efficiently to create your own scientific library.

Subscribe to my free newsletter below and I will send you an email every time I publish new content.

By subscribing you will also receive a short guide, a roadmap, of how to deep dive into science. I have condensed in a few pages the method I follow to learn about a new scientific topic from casual to serious learner.

The 6 profiles who leverage the most from creating their own scientific library

It is clear that googling is not enough and we have to collect our database of distilled information, but who will get the most out of building their own scientific library.

I am not talking just about collecting and storing scientific articles. I mean to learn to read science and interpret scientific results in a practical way ready to use in your projects.

The 6 profiles who leverage the most are:

  • Content creators
  • R&D professionals
  • Advisors and data-driven decision-makers
  • People interested in a very specific topic
  • Undergraduate students
  • PhD candidates and scientists

Content creators

You are a blogger, an author, a YouTuber, or any kind of non-fictional content creator. You need to produce rich content constantly to gain an authoritative voice and become a reference figure in your field or industry.

For that, you have to be well-documented with facts, studies, researches, and analyses to support your arguments. You often read web articles and books about the topic, but you want to be authentic, you don’t want to vomit out others’ opinions.

So, you need to read directly the source, interpret it, and create your own judgments.

Scientific studies are the fundamental blocks of science. Understanding the scope and limitations of the scientific studies and mastering the art of reading a large number of articles will build up your confidence in the topic and create your unique and trusted voice.

R&D professionals

You are part of a team. You develop new products, create new services, or work with new technologies. There is no manuals or roadmap to follow. You have to find your way out by yourself, providing new ideas.

No one is going to tell you what to try next. Your best chance to move forward is to be up-to-date with the latest advances in your field. You need data to test your ideas and to propose new approaches.

It is the moment to consult your scientific library and get inspired by different ideas that have been already tested and probably you can adapt to your specific challenge.

Advisors and data-driven decision-makers

You have to make decisions in an organization or advise people who make decisions. You are responsible for an area of expertise and you are frequently asked to make decisions or advise with little or no time to research the topic.

You’d better do the work upfront. During crisis-free times, you collect and curate scientific studies that will support your decisions next time, giving you confidence and building authority with your colleagues.

People interested in a very specific topic

There are many reasons why someone could be interested in a single particular topic. For instance, the case where you want to know more about a specific disease.

You or someone close to you suffer from rare diseases. You feel lonely and clueless about how serious it is, what options you have, what you can expect.

I cannot imagine a stronger motivation to build your own scientific library than focus on your own issue. Just by understanding better what’s going on, we feel much better, less stressed, relieved. Nowadays science advances very fast. You can be up-to-date with the latest advances related to your disease. Reading the evolution of the research can give you a realistic view of the situation.

Another situation could be the inheritance of a family business, for example, a farm that you would like to modernize.

You want to find more efficient ways to irrigate, so you start motivated reading some studies related to your specific crop and take some notes.

The time pass and one day discussing with your partner about the next move, one study comes to your mind but you don’t remember the details. This is a good moment to pick your digital scientific library and discuss it with the data at hand.

Undergraduate Students

It is the beginning of the semester. Your teacher has explained that for the final evaluation you have to write a long essay. You know that filling so many pages is not going to be easy.

A good moment to start to collect information. You don’t need to start to write on a white page. Only with thirty minutes of work per week, you can collect enough information along the semester to write several essays. You just need to extract the key results, structure them in a meaningful way, and write your interpretation of the data. Easy peasy!

PhD candidates and scientists

This is probably the clearest profile for building a scientific library. You work in science and you have to be up-to-date with scientific literature. Not only for research but also to write and communicate your results. For each paper you read, you find four more to add to the reading list. Your folder of papers to read it only grows.

You need a method to organize all those papers efficiently to find them when you need them. Because the world needs you to do your best job to advance human knowledge, so all of us can have a better life.

Stay tuned

Well, I am here to help you all. I will show the tricks and the tools that scientists use to handle that. To make your relation with scientific literature smoother, practical, useful.

In which of the 6 profiles do you identify yourself the most? You don’t fit in any of the 6 profiles? Leave us a comment below.

How to build YOUR own scientific library

In this blog, I write about how to find, organize, and retrieve scientific studies efficiently to create your own scientific library.

Subscribe to my free newsletter below and I will send you an email every time I publish new content.

By subscribing you will also receive a short guide, a roadmap, of how to deep dive into science. I have condensed in a few pages the method I follow to learn about a new scientific topic from casual to serious learner.

Why read science like a scientist

Did you ever wonder where all those “a study says…” come from?

We heard often in the news, on the radio, or on social media, articles saying — “a new study found…” or “scientists have discovered…”

Those words are magic. We automatically trust whatever comes after because the best tool that humans have to understand nature is through science.

Science is amazing. Science is fun, but at the same time, it is extremely complex.

That is why it is important to understand how science works. To have a critical view that allows us to distinguish between information and noise.

I am going to confess to you one thing — I have been working as a scientist for more than 8 years, and scientific work is wearisome.

Do not misinterpret my words. I love to work in science, but scientific work is a trial-error process, exhausting, and often not successful.

Why, then,

Why I propose you to read science like a scientist?

Like everything in life, there is a right time for each thing.

When you are new to a subject and you only want to know what is it about, the worst thing you can do is to read a “paper” (that is how actually scientists call scientific studies), because you will not understand anything. There are better ways to start to navigate a new topic.

However, when you want to deep dive into a specific subject, the basic texts are not enough. Sometimes, for example, after reading several blog posts, Wikipedia articles, or maybe even a youtube video, you reach that point where you realize you know more about the subject than what you find in those texts.

It depends on how seriously you take the topic.

What if…

  • you are trying to create something new, with the latest technologies?
  • you want to become a reference author in your niche?
  • you have to write an essay (a piece of work) and show novelty?
  • you are interested in a narrow topic that is not mainstream, and it is very difficult to find information about?

In this blog, I want to explain to you what are the best sources for all the levels of involvement in a scientific/technical topic. From where to start in a new topic to when it is advisable to go a step further and create your own scientific library.

You will be surprised, how often build your own scientific library could be useful.

Tell us

What topic would you like to read on a scientific level?

Let us your response in the comments and I will recommend you where to start.

Free downloadable guide

By the way, I have created a short guide, a roadmap, of how to deep dive into science. I have condensed in a few pages the method I follow to learn about a new scientific topic from casual to serious learner.

I am sure you are going to love it. Subscribe now to my free newsletter and I will send you the downloadable pdf directly to your inbox.