Earth-shattering ideas do not come in earth-shattering moments. So, at least, Steven Johnson would have us believe. In his latest book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation*, Johnson explores a series conditions that allow minds to thrive—and good ideas to be born.
Johnson’s book is an exercise in the interwoven. Coral reef, city street, neural synapse, internet—they’re all of a piece. Just as nature develops the reef and society builds the metropolis, the human brain develops breakthroughs over time.
What I appreciated most about this book is that Johnson blended the historical with the contemporary; his exploration offered a new angle on the most famous and oft-studied breakthroughs (like Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection), and at the same time shed a light on developments I’d never even heard of (like an incubator made out of spare car parts). Great ideas from various eras and disciplines are tied together by more than their greatness: they often came about because by similar means.
Johnson’s drivers for innovation are all interwoven and at times even seem to be the inverse of one another. One section discusses how many great ideas take shape over a long incubation period, and the following section explores the flash of clarity that many thinkers and inventors describe when recalling how an idea “just came” to them.
Johnson is at his most skillful when juxtaposing these seemingly inverse notions in such a way that shows them to be complementary than one another, not antithetical. The long incubation period feeds into the ah-ha moment; the ah-ha moment punctuates the incubation period.
Anywhere else, these points would seem to be banal and obvious. But Johnson is tactful in his approach, weaving his chapters together with examples from different eras and disciplines. And this is just what makes Where Good Ideas Come From worth reading. Equal parts Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind and Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything Johnson's book that will teach you things you never knew before, and give you a much richer understanding of things you knew all along.
*Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, by Steven Johnson, will be available in hardcover and on the Kindle from Riverhead Books in October, 2010.
FTC Disclosure: This review is based on a copy of the book I received from the publisher.