Eureka, Wunderbar, Aha, et al.

light bulb

Where Good Ideas Come From: The natural history of innovation by Steven Johnson.

Picture someone getting a good idea.  In your mind’s eye you might see the image of  a light bulb going off, or someone with their finger pointed in the air shouting Eureka!  You might even picture the heavens opening up to the sound of angels.  Forget it! That’s just not how it happens according to Steven Johnson, the author of Where Good Ideas Come From.

Believing an idea to be a single entity is a common misconception.  Ideas are more like a network of things and being connected to one of those networks, whether it be electronic or human, is an important part of the process of creating.

At the beginning of his book, Johnson poses the questions: Why do so many people gravitate toward big cities and what do they find when they get there?   His answer answer brings to mind the adage, "Great minds think alike."  That is, they find people who may have ideas similar to their own but who lack a piece of the puzzle needed to bring their idea to fruition.  In a big city or a university, for example, the chances are greater that they'll meet other people who, like them, are after the same thing. That is, an environment, or network  that is  more conductive to new ideas and innovation.

Each one of the chapters in Johnson's book demonstrates a different way or style in which an idea can be born.  He covers wonderful concepts like “The Adjacent Possible,” The Slow Hunch,” and my personal favorite, “Serendipity.”  Personally, serendipity fascinates me.   As a librarian, it is not unusual to find myself engaged in a conversation about it with library patrons who fear technology will bring about an end to the joy of serendipity.  They love the way you can stumble upon something new and fascinating while looking for something else.  I can understand their sentiments but at the same time I really think they have nothing to fear.  I, like Steven Johnson, think  that the internet might be the greatest generator of serendipity of all time!

Speaking of great ideas, if you haven't already, you must jump on the TED Talks bandwagon.  Here's a great place to start.  This is  a link to Johnson's wonderful TED Talk on the above mentioned book  that took place in Oxford, England in 2009.  Please enjoy:


In 1676  Isaac Newton wrote, “If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”   Like Johnson, he believed that science advanced through incremental changes.  A great follow up read might be On the Shoulders of Giants


We welcome your respectful and on-topic comments and questions in this limited public forum. To find out more, please see Appropriate Use When Posting Content. Community-contributed content represents the views of the user, not those of Chicago Public Library