Where Good Ideas Come From

"Chance favors the connected mind."

- Where Good Ideas Come From, page 174

The greatest minds in human history seem to be springs of good ideas and innovation. Charles Darwin, Benjamin Franklin, and companies like Google never cease to amaze us with their ideas. In many cases, their ideas seem to emerge out of thin air. But to author Steven Johnson, their ideas are no coincidence. In his book, Where Good Ideas Come From, Johnson explores the origin of innovation and seeks to determine what kind of environments are the best producers of ideas in order to give readers pragmatic strategies to innovate in their own lives.

At the outset, Johnson proposes that densely populated, urban areas are significantly more innovative than rural areas. But he goes much deeper to explore over two hundred ideas and identifies seven common patterns of idea formation: The Adjacent Possible, Liquid Networks, The Slow Hunch, Serendipity, Error, Exaptation, and Platforms. Then by classifying them into four kinds of environments to examine emerging patterns, Johnson concludes that open-source or academic environments are the best for innovation because they encourage ideas to be improved upon and re-imagined within a group setting. Johnson likens this environment to a coral reef.

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

Create Your Own Coral Reef

""[The coral reef] is not a story of simple geology ... It is the story about the innovative persistence of life.""
- Where Good Ideas Come From, page 6

It is through an observation made by Charles Darwin on the sands of the Indian Ocean that Johnson forms the foundation of his own idea. Throughout the book, Johnson seems particularly fascinated with Darwin’s Paradox that describes the coral reef – so many different life forms, occupying such a vast array of ecological niches, inhabiting waters that are otherwise remarkably nutrient poor. Darwin was interested in the “tiny architects” that build the reef formations that are resistant to the waves’ impact. The microorganisms form connections to the rocks and each other that are incredibly strong. In many cases they have created coral formations that are thousands of feet tall.

Johnson uses the reef as a metaphor for our own minds. He explains that by utilizing the seven patterns of idea formation in our daily lives, we can start to create our own “reef” – a bank of connections in the mind. And ultimately, it is the connections made within the mind that give rise to good ideas. The good news is that we can do more to foster these connections. Johnson believes that the richness in our daily lives builds up those connections and by doing so we make our lives a more fertile environment for good ideas.

“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 your own ideas; borrow, recycle, reinvent.”

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Embrace Chaos

"...the quickest path to innovation lies in making novel connections."
- Where Good Ideas Come From, page 108

Making connections in the mind to build one’s coral reef isn’t necessarily about absorbing tons of new information. Rather, it is about connecting what we already know in new ways. Consider this: the adult human brain contains one hundred trillion distinct neuronal connections. It is by far the most dense, complex network on earth. In order to make the most of the information we have, we have to be able to access it. In a way that is slightly metaphysical, Johnson proposes that we already hold all the answers – they are internalized.

One of the ways that the brain forms connections is during REM sleep. Neuroscience suggests that REM sleep can actually be a crazy time for the brain. Think about the last dream you remember. Did it seem random? That randomness is actually the brain experimenting! This sometimes leads to the brain coming across a valuable link that escaped during waking consciousness. In fact, studies have shown that the brain actually gravitates toward a more chaotic state of existence where it can experiment with new connections. Johnson goes as a far to say that Freud had it backward – a dream isn’t revealing a repressed truth, “it is exploring, trying to find new truths by experimenting with novel combinations of neurons” (page 102).

Allowing your mind to wander is one of the many ways we make meaningful discoveries. To go a step further, we have to give ourselves the “space” to be a bit chaotic in order to form those connections. Brainstorming at the beginning of a project is a prime example of this.

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Seek Openness, Not Protection

"When nature finds itself in need of new ideas, it strives to connect, not protect."
- Where Good Ideas Come From, page 108

Just as coral reefs welcome new microorganisms to build themselves up, choosing to be open about our ideas will provide us with opportunities to build upon our own ideas. Johnson suggests two facets of openness. The first relates to the networks we live and socialize in. Throughout his explanations of the seven patterns, Johnson alludes to networking and openness as a key way to form good ideas. But it’s not enough to spend time with like-minded folks. Making your personal network diverse is what will lead to richness in your ideas because you can cultivate them from different perspectives.

The second kind of openness that Johnson discusses relates to intellectual property. An idea is often just the tip of the iceberg for developing something much greater and there is great value in allowing others to come into conversation about the idea. Johnson uses the example of offices that have created a physical space that foster idea generation: breaking down physical walls, allowing employees to work near those they are collaborating with and turning walls into whiteboards. By making it easier for inter-disciplinary collaboration, good ideas are more likely to be birthed.

Johnson also uses Twitter as an example of “Cooperative Advantage.” Much of what Twitter is today has been developed by users and external developers, not the company. For instance, only a small percentage of Tweets are actually sent from the main Twitter website. The majority of them come from the plethora of applications for mobile devices that were created by amateur coders. These developments all stem from the deliberate decision of Twitter’s founders to utilize an open platform – Application Programming Interface. This has created one of the largest ecosystems of applications built for their platform and further engages users with their product.

Just like the coral reef that he describes, Johnson builds a network of ways for the reader to improve idea generation. Although there are many ideas to try, they are all connected to two underlying concepts. First, we are only as intelligent as our networks. Second, breaking from the routine leads to new perspectives. Johnson’s combinations of historical anecdotes and creative insight make this a great read for anyone who seeks to be on the edge of innovation.

In the comments below, let us know…

What has helped your best ideas evolve?  Do you recommend any strategies, tips, or tricks?

Consultant or Coach? Take our Fit Assessment to find out if partnering with Actionable is right for you.
Vanessa Chase

ABOUT Vanessa Chase

I am a fundraising strategist and copywriter, and run the non-profit resource website, Philanthropy For All. Through my work, my goal is to help passionate non-profit folks better articulate their non-profit’s impact and work is a way that translates to engaged philanthropic communities...
Read More
blog comments powered by Disqus

Back to summaries