Where Do Good Ideas Really Come From?

It’s the age old question.

You could have all the confidence, resources and education in the world, but without a good idea, your career probably won’t go very far. So where do good ideas come from, and how do you maximize your chances of getting one?

This is the question that Steven Johnson, a bestselling author, respected thinker and all-around fascinating guy, sets out to find in his forthcoming book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. Johnson analyzes a wide range of big ideas from Darwin’s groundbreaking notion of evolution to the creation of GPS. He touches on environments that foster innovation and creativity, whether it be the Internet, a coffee house in England or coral reefs that spur changes in organisms.

Johnson offered up a few insights from his book, which is set to come out early next month, in a recent TED talk. Most notably, Johnson pushes back against the common perception that all great ideas emerge in a kind of eureka moment.

“We have this very rich vocabulary to describe moments of inspiration,” Johnson says.  “We have Eureka moments, we have the light bulb moments… All of these concepts share this basic assumption that an idea is a single thing, something that happens often in this wonderful illuminating moment. But in fact, what I would argue… is that an idea is a network.”

By this, Johnson means that a new idea actually creates a new network or configuration of neurons in your brain. But beyond this, innovation as we know it is generally the product of a network of people who bounce ideas off one another and gradually produce a breakthrough idea.

Johnson calls this environment the liquid network, and argues that the places which are most likely to foster big ideas are those “where you have lots of different ideas that are together, different backgrounds and different interests jostling off one another.”

So when do you know that you’ve had a good idea?

This too may not be instantaneous. Instead, Johnson highlights the example of Charles Darwin who had most of the idea of evolution written down for months before he realized the full breath of his innovation.

According to Johnson, this is how great ideas often work. “They fade into view over time,” he says.

Watch the full video below.

Image courtesy of Flickr, Jeff Kubina.


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