top of page


Screen Shot 2019-12-24 at 10.17.40

Book:  Where Good Ideas Come From

Author:  Steven Johnson

Purchase:  PrinteBookAudiobook

Citation:  Johnson, S. (2010). Where good ideas come from : the natural history of innovation. New York: Riverhead Books.

Three Big Takeaways:
  1. Hindsight tends to blur hunches into eureka moments. People like to tell the stories of their great breakthroughs as epiphanies, in part because there is a kind of narrative thrill that comes from that lightbulb moment of sudden clarity, and in part because the evolution of the hard work is much harder to convey. But if one examines the intellectual fossil record closely, the slow hunch is the rule, not the exception. (pg. 78)

  2. In Europe, great thinkers started keeping something called a "commonplace" book. Just about anyone with intellectual ambition in the 17th and 18th centuries was likely to keep a commonplace book. Commonplacing, it it was called, involved transcribing interesting or inspirational passages from one's reading, assembling a personalized encyclopedia of quotations. There is a distinct self-help quality to the early descriptions of commonplace virtues: maintaining the books enabled one to "lay up a fund of knowledge, from which we may at all times select what is useful in the several pursuits of life." (pg. 84)

  3. Reading remains an unsurpassed vehicle for the transmission of interesting new ideas and perspectives. But most of us are only able to read intermittently for short periods of time. The problem with assimilating new ideas at the fringes of your daily routine is that the potential combinations are limited by the reach of your memory. If it takes you two weeks to finish a book, by the time you get to the next book, you've forgotten much of what was so interesting or provocative about the original one. You can immerse yourself in a single author's perspective, but then it's harder to create serendipitous collisions between the ideas of multiple authors. One way around this is to carve out dedicated periods where you read a large collection of books in a condensed amount of time. And once you are done, take off for a week or two and do a deep dive into the words you've stockpiled. By compressing intake into a matter of days, you will give new ideas additional opportunities to network, for the simple reason it's easier to remember something that you read yesterday than it is to remember something you read six months ago. (pg. 112)


Other Key Ideas:

The creative brain behaves differently from the brain that is performing a repetitive task. The question is how to push your brain toward those more creative networks. To make your mind more innovative, you have to place it inside environments that share that same network: networks of ideas or people that help the mind explore the boundaries. Certain environments enhance the brain's natural capacity to make new links of association. (pg. 47)

People tend to condense the origin of breakthrough into tidy narratives, forgetting the messy, convoluted routes to inspiration that were actually followed. Isolated "eureka" moments are rarities. Instead, most important ideas emerge during regular meetings where people share information and present their latest work. Therefore, the most productive tool for generating good ideas remains a circle of humans at a table, talking shop. (pg. 60)

Two decades ago, the concept of "flow" was used to describe the internal state of energized focus that characterizes the mind at its most productive. (pg. 64)

Most great ideas first take shape in partial, incomplete form. They have the seeds of something profound, but they lack a key element that can turn the hunch into something truly powerful. And more often than not, that missing element is somewhere else, living as another hunch in another person's head. Hunches that don't connect are doomed to stay hunches. (pg. 75)

Keeping a hunch alive poses challenges on multiple scales. For starters, you have to preserve the hunch in your own memory. Most slow hunches never last long enough to turn into something useful, because they pass in and out of memory too quickly, precisely because they possess a certain murkiness. You get a feeling that there's an interesting avenue to explore, a problem that might someday lead you to a solution, but then you get distracted by more pressing matters and the hunch disappears. So part of the secret of hunch cultivation is simple: write everything down. (pg. 83)

There is nothing mystical about the role of dreams in scientific discovery. We know that REM sleep is characterized as memories and associations that are triggered in a chaotic, semi random fashion, creating the hallucinatory quality of dreams. Most of the connections are meaningless, but every now and then the dreaming brain stumbles across a valuable link that has escaped waking consciousness. (pg. 101)

One way to trigger an intellectual breakthrough is to go for a walk. The history of innovation is replete with stories of good ideas that occurred to people while they were out on a stroll. The stroll removes you from the task-based focus of modern life (paying bills, answering emails, etc.) and deposits you in a more associative state. Given enough time, your mind will often stumble across some old connection that it had long overlooked, and you experience that delightful feeling of private serendipity: Why didn't I think of that before? (pg. 110)

Private serendipity can be cultivated by technology as well. For more than a decade now, I have been curating a private digital archive of quotes that I found intriguing. Some of these passages involve very focused research on a specific project; others are more random discoveries, hunches waiting to make a connection. Some of them are passages that I've transcribed from books or articles; others were clipped directly from web pages. By combining my own words with passages from other sources, the collection becomes something more than just a file storage system. It becomes a digital extension of my imperfect memory, an archive of all my old ideas, and the ideas that have influenced me. there are now more than five thousand entries - sixty books worth of quotes, fragments, and hunches, all individually captured by me, stored in a single database. (pg. 113)

bottom of page