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Where Good Ideas Come From summary

Steven Johnson

The Natural History of Innovation

4.1 (188 ratings)
18 mins

Brief summary

In 'Where Good Ideas Come From' by Steven Johnson, we explore how innovations and breakthroughs come about. By studying patterns in history, science, and technology, we can understand the conditions that support creativity and encourage the emergence of new ideas.

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    Where Good Ideas Come From
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    Evolution and innovation usually happen in the realm of the adjacent possible.

    Four billion years ago, carbon atoms mulled around in the primordial soup. But as life began, those atoms did not spontaneously arrange themselves into complex life forms like sunflowers or squirrels.

    First, they had to form simpler structures like molecules, polymers, proteins, cells, primitive organisms and so forth. Each step along the way opened up possibilities for new combinations, expanding the realm of what was possible, until finally a carbon atom could reside in a sunflower.

    Similarly, eBay could not be created in the 1950s. First, someone had to invent computers, then a way to connect those computers, then a World Wide Web for people to browse, and then a platform that supported online payments.

    Both evolution and innovation tend to happen within the bounds of the adjacent possible; in other words, the realm of possibilities available at any given moment.

    Great leaps beyond the adjacent possible are rare, and doomed to be short-term failures if the environment is simply not yet ready for them. Had YouTube been launched in the 1990s, it would have flopped since neither the fast Internet connections nor the software required to view videos was available then.

    The predominance of multiples in innovation highlights how the adjacent possible is constrained by existing parts and knowledge. A multiple occurs when several people independently make the same discovery almost simultaneously.

    Carl Wilhelm Scheele and Joseph Priestley isolated oxygen in 1772 and 1774 respectively, unaware of the other’s advancement. But they did share the same starting point, because their search for oxygen could not begin until the gaseous nature of air was first understood. Thus it was inevitable that some scientists would reach their discoveries at around the same time.

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    What is Where Good Ideas Come From about?

    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.

    Where Good Ideas Come From Review

    Where Good Ideas Come From (2010) explores the origins of innovative ideas and reveals the surprising patterns behind their emergence. Here's why this book is definitely worth reading:

    • It uncovers the commonalities between different breakthrough ideas, showing how diverse industries and fields can learn from each other.
    • Backed by extensive research and compelling examples, it provides a deeper understanding of the creative process and how to foster innovation.
    • The book challenges conventional wisdom and encourages fresh thinking, offering valuable insights for individuals and organizations looking to generate and nurture innovative ideas.

    Who should read Where Good Ideas Come From?

    • Anyone interested in the history of science and innovation, especially tantalizing anecdotes of great discoveries.
    • Anyone who wishes to be more creative and innovative, or hopes to foster such traits on an organizational level.
    • Anyone interested in the evolution of life on Earth.

    About the Author

    Steven Johnson is an American popular science author. He regularly contributes to The Wall Street JournalThe New York Times and The Financial Times, and his previous bestsellers include Everything Bad is Good for You and The Ghost Map.

    The idea behind Where Good Ideas Come From was to examine and explain what kinds of environments have historically fostered innovation. 

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    Where Good Ideas Come From FAQs 

    What is the main message of Where Good Ideas Come From?

    The main message of Where Good Ideas Come From is that innovation and creativity are often the result of collaboration and the exchange of ideas.

    How long does it take to read Where Good Ideas Come From?

    The reading time for Where Good Ideas Come From varies, but it typically takes a few hours. The Blinkist summary can be read in just 15 minutes.

    Is Where Good Ideas Come From a good book? Is it worth reading?

    Where Good Ideas Come From offers valuable insights into the origins of innovation. It is definitely worth reading for anyone interested in understanding how ideas are formed.

    Who is the author of Where Good Ideas Come From?

    The author of Where Good Ideas Come From is Steven Johnson.

    What to read after Where Good Ideas Come From?

    If you're wondering what to read next after Where Good Ideas Come From, here are some recommendations we suggest:
    • A Whole New Mind by Daniel H. Pink
    • Making Ideas Happen by Scott Belsky
    • The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins
    • A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
    • A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking
    • Creativity by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
    • Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss and Tahl Raz
    • On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin
    • The Art of Positive Thinking by Elizabeth R. Brown
    • Physics of the Future by Michio Kaku