Yesterday, entranced by Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook moment, I was searching for the next Really Big Idea. But someone sent me a link to this interview with Steven Johnson who writes: ‘Eureka moments are very, very rare’.Johnson is the author of the book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. He talks to Oliver Burkeman about how collaboration, rather than a sudden flash of genius, is usually at the root of our most innovative ideas.
“It’s very, very rare to find cases where somebody on their own, working alone, in a moment of sudden clarity has a great breakthrough that changes the world. And yet there seems to be this bizarre desire to tell the story that way.”
At the core of his alternative history is the notion of the “adjacent possible”, one of those ideas that seems, at first, like common sense, then gradually reveals itself as an entirely new way of looking at almost everything. Coined by the biologist Stuart Kauffman, it refers to the fact that at any given time – in science and technology, but perhaps also in culture and politics – only certain kinds of next steps are feasible. “The history of cultural progress,” Johnson writes, “is, almost without exception, a story of one door leading to another door, exploring the palace one room at a time.”
Think of playing chess: at any point in the game, several ingenious moves may be possible, but countless others won’t be. Likewise with inventions: the printing press was only possible – and perhaps only thinkable – once moveable type, paper and ink all existed. YouTube, when it was launched in 2005, was a brilliant idea; had it been launched in 1995, before broadband and cheap video cameras were widespread, it would have been a terrible one. Or take culture: to 1950s viewers, Johnson argues, complex TV shows such as Lost or The Wire would have been borderline incomprehensible, like some kind of avant-garde art, because certain ways of engaging with the medium hadn’t yet been learned. And all this applies, too, to the most basic innovation: life itself. At some point, back in the primordial soup, a bunch of fatty acids gave rise to a cell membrane, which made possible the simplest organisms, and so on. What those acids couldn’t do was spontaneously form into a fish, or a mouse: it wasn’t part of their adjacent possible.
What does all this mean in practical terms?
The best way to encourage (or to have) new ideas isn’t to fetishise the “spark of genius”, to retreat to a mountain cabin in order to “be creative”, or to blabber interminably about “blue-sky”, “out-of-the-box” thinking. Rather, it’s to expand the range of your possible next moves – the perimeter of your potential – by exposing yourself to as much serendipity, as much argument and conversation, as many rival and related ideas as possible; to borrow, to repurpose, to recombine. This is one way of explaining the creativity generated by cities, by Europe’s 17th-century coffee-houses, and by the internet. Good ideas happen in networks; in one rather brain-bending sense, you could even say that “good ideas are networks”. Or as Johnson also puts it: “Chance favours the connected mind.”
Another surprising truth about big ideas: even when they seem to be individual flashes of genius, they don’t happen in a flash – though the people who have them often subsequently claim that they did. Charles Darwin always said that the theory of natural selection occurred to him on 28 September 1838 while he was reading Thomas Malthus’s essay on population; suddenly, the mechanism of evolution seemed blindingly straightforward. (“How incredibly stupid not to think of that,” Darwin’s great supporter Thomas Huxley was supposed to have said on first hearing the news.) Yet Darwin’s own notebooks reveal that the theory was forming clearly in his mind more than a year beforehand: it wasn’t a flash of insight, but what Johnson calls a “slow hunch”. And on the morning after his alleged eureka moment, was Darwin feverishly contemplating the implications of his breakthrough? Nope: he busied himself with some largely unconnected ruminations on the sexual curiosity of primates.
A certain kind of businessperson, I suspect, will buy Where Good Ideas Come From in order to learn to how to come up with a killer business idea, bring it to market, and clean up financially. They may find themselves slightly alarmed, therefore, by a sequence of striking graphics in which Johnson demonstrates that the vast majority of major innovations since 1800 have come from outside the free market – from universities and other environments where profit wasn’t the overwhelming motivation. The urge to hoard, protect and directly profit from good ideas can work against the sharing-and-recombining ethos that the adjacent possible demands. And it’s often the case that those who do attain vast wealth have done so by finding ways to exploit the creativity of the non-market world. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is so rich today only because Tim Berners-Lee developed the web as a non-profit venture. (And a non-profit venture, incidentally, that had no eureka moment either. Johnson quotes Berners-Lee as saying that interviewers are always frustrated when he admits he never experienced one.)
I think this means I can come down from my mountain cabin, withdraw all my patent applications, return the billions of dollars my investors have sent me, and start talking to people again. It seems as if I am going to be poorer but much better connected.