“Where Good Ideas Come From” (book review)

One of the most important, and least-well appreciated, facts about creativity is that it seldom happens in a vacuum.  We imagine that a “creative genius” is someone whose ideas come out of thin air.  We may even feel cheated if we discover that the “genius’s” clever bit of writing or new gizmo was actually an adaptation of something that already existed.  (For instance, people have sometimes criticized Benjamin Franklin’s “Poor Richard’s Almanack”  because he “just” adapted his witty aphorisms from ancient philosophers, the Bible, etc.)  And yet, new ideas are generally based on some kind of adaptation, borrowing, or accidental meshing of older ones.  If “creative” people are good at anything, they are mostly good at collecting and playing with old ideas, parts, and observations, and in the process articulating something that seems “new.”

Steven Johnson’s new book, Where Good Ideas Come From, is the best book on creativity I’ve ever read.  He provides a kind of catalog of creative processes that goes far beyond the ancient theories of the mystics and the psychoanalysts and contemporary psychological researchers and writers on creativity.  (As a species, psychologists are socialized to suppress their creativity, so that’s perhaps not surprising.)

Johnson discusses the ways in which organisms evolve, how a change in a situation or in, say, the shape of a bird’s feather results in new “adjacent possibilities” which might not have existed previously; what he does is no less than to show how intellectual or cultural creativity is in many ways identical to the evolution of body parts in houseflies.  Where Good Ideas Come From is that rare book that can dramatically change your entire understanding of the universe in which you live, from the micro level of how cell membranes evolved,  to the process of scientific discovery about those cell membranes.  Perhaps Johnson’s most intriguing point is that the evolution of cell membranes, and the development of scientific knowledge about that evolution, are not terribly different processes.

Though not a “self help” book, Johnson gives us valuable guidance in becoming more creative writers, thinkers, and problem solvers in our own right.  One way he does this is by sharing something about his own creative process as a researcher/writer, and how he makes his own process more efficient by the use of technology.

One of Johnson’s popular (among a certain species of nerd) pieces of writing is a several-years old article in the New York Times on his use of software (a Mac software called DEVONthink) for helping him to “think” when he writes.  In his book, Johnson elaborates a bit on his process.  DEVONthink, like some other software (for example, Mac users may be familiar with  one called Tinderbox) is a note-storage software with built-in artificial intelligence functions.  You store notes in a database that can include copies of articles, e-mails, notes you write (or even whole books, as he does), ideas, or favorite passages from books you’ve read — anything you want.  Over time, it’s easy to accumulate thousands of such notes.  (I’m actually writing this post in Tinderbox, and at present my own Tinderbox database file contains nearly four thousand notes, many of which are “linked” to each other in a complex web of connections that has grown organically over time.)

The software analyzes the contents based on word frequencies, or how often certain terms appear together.  This self-analyzing database thus becomes a charged “battery” of potential information which it’s then easy to tap into, when you want to find other ideas you’ve collected that are like the one you are working on.

For instance, Johnson explains how he may write a paragraph for a book, and then have the software “find similar notes.”  The result may be a list of other things he’s dumped into the database, perhaps several years ago, that he can then read through.  While many of the notes he finds may not seem relevant, the hit rate on related ideas, facts, or other material is high enough that it allows him to rapidly associate the new paragraph to ideas that  he might otherwise never have thought of.  What’s more, he can then “find similar” notes to the newly retrieved, particularly relevant ones, and thus further extend his “web” of thoughts related to the topic he’s working on.  (One can do a similar thing by searching the web, by Tweeting one’s network of “followers” for ideas, by tossing a question into Reddit.com or other social media and getting thoughtful responses from fifty strangers around the globe, and many other ways in our contemporary, increasingly networked world.)

Johnson shows how, a few hundred years ago, people did similar things by compiling “commonplace books” — basically, working journals where they collected quotes from readings, observations, etc., and then  indexing and reviewing these note collections over time.  He shows how Darwin reviewed and re-worked his own journals extensively to come up with his theories, and how these kinds of note taking innovations and “commonplace book” systems ultimately provided a template for the invention of the World Wide Web.)

Creative individuals have long known that the key to new ideas is often to find the best ways to “muse” about a problem, to come up with different approaches or points of view on it, by linking the problem to other, apparently “unrelated” ideas.  Whether it’s Archimedes sitting in a tub of water and realizing that the best way to test the purity of gold is to immerse chunks of mystery metal and measure the volume of water displaced, or a software developer intuiting that the metaphor of a “desktop” is a more interesting design for a computer-human interface, we take ideas from one place and mix them with our other experiences, and thus we extend the “adjacent possibilities” of life.

Even knowing how creativity happens seems to expand our creativity.  And for that, there’s no better book currently available than Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From.


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