Notes from Where Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson

(I’ve started reading more books on the Kindle; this is an experiment to see how well clipping and sharing highlights from there works. The numbers after each quote are the Kindle “locations”.)

Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson

How ideas happen

The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself. 362

Good ideas are not conjured out of thin air; they are built out of a collection of existing parts 417

Carbon atoms measure only 0.03 percent of the overall composition of the earth’s crust, and yet they make up nearly 20 percent of our body mass. That abundance highlights the unique property of the carbon atom: its combinatorial power. Carbon is a connector. 559

One flask connected to the chemical soup contained a pair of electrodes, which Miller and Urey used to simulate lightning by triggering a series of quick sparks between them. They ran the experiment for seven straight days, and by the time they had completed the first cycle, they found that more than 10 percent of the carbon had spontaneously recombined into many of the organic compounds essential to life: sugars, lipids, nucleic acids. 573

The work of dreams turns out to be a particularly chaotic, yet productive, way of exploring the adjacent possible.1146

Kekulé’s slow hunch had set the stage for the insight, but for that hunch to turn into a world-changing idea, he needed the most unlikely of connections: an iconic image from ancient mythology. 1157

John Barth describes it in nautical terms: “You don’t reach Serendip by plotting a course for it. You have to set out in good faith for elsewhere and lose your bearings serendipitously.” 1224

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. 1276

The errors of the great mind exceed in number those of the less vigorous one. 1562

Error is not simply a phase you have to suffer through on the way to genius. Error often creates a path that leads you out of your comfortable assumptions. 1569

Being right keeps you in place. Being wrong forces you to explore. 1571

Benjamin Franklin, who knew a few things about innovation himself, said it best: “Perhaps the history of the errors of mankind, all things considered, is more valuable and interesting than that of their discoveries. Truth is uniform and narrow; it constantly exists, and does not seem to require so much an active energy, as a passive aptitude of soul in order to encounter it. But error is endlessly diversified.” 1711 Note: study failures instead of successes in business? biz books and school both…

New genres need old devices. 1820

How to measure innovation

There are many ways to measure innovation, but perhaps the most elemental yardstick, at least where technology is concerned, revolves around the job that the technology in question lets you do. All other things being equal, a breakthrough that lets you execute two jobs that were impossible before is twice as innovative as a breakthrough that lets you do only one new thing. 210

Environments that encourage good ideas

Kleiber’s law proved that as life gets bigger, it slows down. But West’s model demonstrated one crucial way in which human-built cities broke from the patterns of biological life: as cities get bigger, they generate ideas at a faster clip. 146

The argument of this book is that a series of shared properties and patterns recur again and again in unusually fertile environments.224 Innovative environments are better at helping their inhabitants explore the adjacent possible, because they expose a wide and diverse sample of spare parts—mechanical conceptual—and they encourage novel ways of recombining those parts. 495

The trick to having good ideas is not to sit around in glorious isolation and try to think big thoughts. The trick is to get more parts on the table. 515

Building 20 resisted those calcifying forces for a simple reason: it was built on the cheap, which meant its residents had no qualms about tearing down a wall or punching a hole in the ceiling to adapt the space to a new idea. 747

Building 99 was created from the ground up to be reinvented by the unpredictable flow of collaboration and inspiration. All the office spaces are modular, with walls that can be easily reconfigured to match the needs of the employees. 750

Liquid networks create an environment where those partial ideas can connect; they provide a kind of dating service for promising hunches. They make it easier to disseminate good ideas, of course, but they also do something more sublime: they help complete ideas. 853

The groups that had been deliberately contaminated with erroneous information ended up making more original connections than the groups that had only been given pure information. The “dissenting” actors prodded the other subjects into exploring new rooms in the adjacent possible, even though they were, technically speaking, adding incorrect data to the environment. 1622

The best innovation labs are always a little contaminated. 1630

Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings. 2324

In the private sector, the proprietary breakthrough achieved in a closed lab turns out to be a rarity. 2621

Innovative thinking was much more likely to emerge from individuals who bridged “structural holes” between tightly knit clusters. Employees who primarily shared information with people in their own division had a harder time coming up with useful suggestions for Raytheon’s business, when measured against employees who maintained active links to a more diverse group. 1918

Apple calls it concurrent or parallel production. All the groups—design, manufacturing, engineering, sales—meet continuously through the product-development cycle, brainstorming, trading ideas and solutions, strategizing over the most pressing issues, and generally keeping the conversation open to a diverse group of perspectives. 1974

How to keep track of your thoughts

Keeping a slow hunch alive poses challenges on multiple scales. For starters, you have to preserve the hunch in your own memory, in the dense network of your neurons. 947

We can see Darwin’s ideas evolve because on some basic level the notebook platform creates a cultivating space for his hunches. 953

Darwin was constantly rereading his notes, discovering new implications. His ideas emerge as a kind of duet between the present-tense thinking brain and all those past observations recorded on paper. 955

The great minds of the period—Milton, Bacon, Locke—were zealous believers in the memory-enhancing powers of the commonplace book. In its most customary form, “commonplacing,” as it was called, involved transcribing interesting or inspirational passages from one’s reading, assembling a personalized encyclopedia of quotations. 962

Each encounter holds the promise that some long-forgotten hunch will connect in a new way with some emerging obsession. 1000

You need a system for capturing hunches, but not necessarily categorizing them, because categories can build barriers between disparate ideas, restrict them to their own conceptual islands. 1004

Bill Gates (and his successor at Microsoft, Ray Ozzie) are famous for taking annual reading vacations. During the year they deliberately cultivate a stack of reading material—much of it unrelated to their day-to-day focus at Microsoft—and then they take off for a week or two and do a deep dive into the words they’ve stockpiled. By compressing their intake into a matter of days, they give new ideas additional opportunities to network among themselves, for the simple reason that it’s easier to remember something that you read yesterday than it is to remember something you read six months ago. 1280

I use DEVONthink as an improvisational tool as well. I write a paragraph about something—let’s say it’s about the human brain’s remarkable facility for interpreting facial expressions. I then plug that paragraph into the software, and ask DEVONthink to find other passages in my archive that are similar. 1318

But imagine if the FBI had been using a networked version of a DEVONthink archive instead of the archaic Automated Case Support system. The top brass at the Radical Fundamentalist Unit would still have read the search warrant request for Moussaoui’s laptop and thought to themselves, “This sounds like a pretty shaky hunch.” But a quick DEVONthink query would have pointed them to the Phoenix memo, to another hunch about flight training and terrorism. 1464

Designing for context

Designing an incubator for a developing country wasn’t just a matter of creating something that worked; it was also a matter of designing something that would break in a non-catastrophic way. 319

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. 679

Follow up

In 1964, Arthur Koestler published his epic account of innovation’s roots, The Act of Creation. 680

(In a New Yorker essay, Malcolm Gladwell wonderfully described this trend as the West Village-ification of the corporate office.) 728

For more on Apple’s design and development processes, see Lev Grossman’s “How Apple Does It.” 3566