What I'm Reading: Where Good Ideas Come From

Oct 12 2010 Published by under Professionalism, What I'm Reading

Last week a couple of reviews brought Steven Johnson's new book to my attention, so I downloaded it. Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation deserves a post, and I'm only about a third of the way through it. The book brings together a lot of ideas about innovation and supports or debunks them. Sudden inspiration? Not so much- most paradigm shifts build slowly in the mind. Only in retrospective telling of the tale do "a-ha" moments occur. When appropriate synapses suddenly get together and form the thought, the thinker is often doing something else entirely. Walking, working other jobs, and dreaming may all allow our brains to mix chaotic ideas and "suddenly" form the "next big thing."

When does most laboratory innovation occur? From hidden camera studies, lab meetings are the most fruitful time. The interplay of perspectives between people provides the right level of disorganization to make the thoughts flow. Being a solo scientist at the bench provides far few insights. Cities provide more innovation than small towns, and open areas in buildings encourage more idea flow than isolated offices or cubicles.

I had previously heard of the concept of "The Adjacent Possible" before, but it was not called this term. What does this mean? Innovation depends on the next step. Once tools have been developed, that next step becomes inevitable, even though it may seem like a paradigm-shifting innovation at the time. Something that is one small step farther away remains out of reach; even though we can think it, the tools and connections are not adjacent yet.

Reading this book provides an entertaining counterpoint to the thoughts of St. Kern, Martyr of Baltimore. He bemoans the lack of passion to pursue evening and weekend work in cancer research. Johnson's book would suggest that the "down time" Kern dismisses may be more important to the creative process than more time at the bench. Indeed, many of the 36 people he found in his last survey of an almost empty building may have been generating data, but not the "discovery." The innovation, the creation tends to come about during interactions with others. Someone may finish the experiment on Saturday, but the meaning, the eureka moment, is more likely to occur at the next lab meeting.

This book is a great read, and I may find more to say as I peruse more of it. If you haven't picked it up yet, you should.

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