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8 Lessons From History for Generating Great Ideas

Science
8 Lessons From History for Generating Great Ideas

Gutenberg’s printing press. Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Microsoft Windows. Twitter. Where did those ideas from from? Steven Johnson is a science writer whose work focuses on the history and future of innovation. He pored through centuries of material to determine what beliefs and habits history’s biggest game-changers and rule-breakers had in common. The result of that research was his instant classic Where Good Ideas Come From. Here are eight key insights he shared in his book.

  1. The “Eureka!” moment is a myth. Instead, embrace the slow hunch.

    Even Isaac Newton didn’t really get the idea for gravity while hanging out under a tree. Great thinkers typically spend decades toying with their big idea before they present their findings to the world.

  2. Brainstorm out loud. Keep a commonplace book to log your ideas.

    If hunches are the building blocks of good ideas, you need somewhere to write them down so that they can develop over time. The English philosopher John Locke had a solution: the commonplace book, a special notebook where he wrote down his favorite quotes and most interesting ideas. You can even make a modern commonplace book online.

  3. Embrace the architecture of ideas. Ideas can only thrive in spaces designed for them to do so.

    The best office spaces are ones that allow for collaboration and constant brainstorming. Encourage group work, put whiteboards on the walls and build inviting common areas for employees to congregate.

  4. Cooperate — share ideas among departments and even outside your company.

    Many companies shroud their R&D efforts in secrecy, but transparency has its perks. Sharing your innovations with others means you can benefit from the ways that they improve upon your ideas.

  5. Explore the boundaries of the “adjacent possible.”

    In biology, the adjacent possible is the series of combinations that can be created from a certain group of elements, molecules or other components. Once those combinations are built, the adjacent possible expands: now these new combos can be combined themselves to create a new series of possibilities. Sometimes the best ideas are just new ways to work old parts.

  6. Recycle old parts and platforms. Engage in shameless intellectual exaptation.

    The best ideas build on what came before. The printing press wasn’t a completely new invention; Gutenberg just reconfigured the machine used to make wine for a new purpose. Similarly, Twitter borrowed its 140-character schtick from SMS messaging; the concept was an old idea applied in a different context.

  7. Make mistakes. Generating bad ideas brings you closer to the good ones.

    From mass-market penicillin to mainstream photography, some of the best ideas were originally mistakes. Even mistakes that turn out to be bad ideas can have merit. Studies show that environments with certain amounts of error foster more creativity than intellectually sterile climes do.

  8. It might sound cheesy or mystical, but dreaming is actually a great source of new ideas.

    During REM sleep, cells in our brain give off random surges of electricity, invoking a hodgepodge of memories, associations and facts. Occasionally, one of these random, spontaneous connections ends up being a valuable idea or link that your waking self ignored in daylight hours.

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