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Where Good Ideas Come From

The Natural History of Innovation

By Steven Johnson
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Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson

Where Good Ideas Come From (2011) examines the evolution of life on Earth and the history of science. This New York Times bestseller highlights many parallels between the two, ranging from carbon atoms forming the very first building blocks of life to cities and the World Wide Web fostering great innovations and discoveries.

In addition to presenting this extensive analysis, replete with anecdotes and scientific evidence, Johnson also considers how individual and organizational creativity can be cultivated.

This is a Blinkist staff pick

“I love these blinks because they combine so many different layers of abstraction, from carbon atoms combining to form molecules to entire cities buzzing with creative collisions.”

– Ben H, Head of Editorial at Blinkist

Key idea 1 of 9

World-changing ideas generally evolve over time as slow hunches rather than as sudden breakthroughs.

Although in retrospect great discoveries may seem like single, definable eureka-moments, in reality they tend to fade into view slowly. They are like gradually maturing slow hunches, which demand time and cultivation to bloom.

According to Darwin, the theory of natural selection simply popped into his head when he was contemplating Malthus’ writings on population growth. But Darwin’s notebooks reveal that, far before this so-called epiphany, he had already described a very nearly complete theory of natural selection. This slow hunch only matured into a fully-formed theory over time.

Only in retrospect does the idea seem so obvious that it must have come in a flash of insight. Upon hearing of the theory for the first time, a supporter of Darwin exclaimed, “How incredibly stupid not to think of that!”

Another slow hunch led to a revolution in the way we share information today: the World Wide Web.

As a child, Tim Berners-Lee read a Victorian-era how-to book and was fascinated by the “portal of information” he had found. Well over a decade later, working as a consultant at the Swiss CERN laboratory and partially inspired by the book, he tinkered with a side-project that allowed him to store and connect chunks of information, like nodes in a network. Another decade later, CERN officially authorized him to work on the project, which finally matured into a network where documents on different computers could be connected through hypertext links. After decades of Berners-Lee’s slow hunch maturing and developing, the World Wide Web was born.

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