Where good ideas come from

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.

Serendipity

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.

Error

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

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.

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Author: Enrique Morales Orcajo, PhD

I am an engineer, scientist, and traveler based in Europe. I write about how to consume and digest scientific studies in a practical and efficient way. My goal is to help you make more sound scientific judgments.

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