I just finished Stephen Johnson’s “Where Good Ideas Come From.” Recommended to me by a few people independently, it quickly rose to the top of my reading list. At just a few hundred pages (depending on your preferred ebook font size), it’s fast read, and I recommend it to anyone who works in an environment where consistent creative output is critical. If you’re reading this blog, chances are that you fall into that category – so go read it!
Johnson explores the spaces in and around ideas through the lenses of pyschology, sociology, neurology, and biology. He draws fascinating parallels between the natural and the cultural, between the evolution of matter and the evolution of concepts. The most concise summary of his findings might be that…
“good ideas are not conjured out of thin air; they are built out of a collection of existing parts, the composition of which expands (and, occasionally, contracts) over time.”
A critical element to the evolution of a good idea is what Johnson calls “a slow hunch.” The concept struck such a chord with me, that I’ve included his explanation here in full:
“Most hunches that turn into important innovations unfold over much longer time frames. They start with a vague, hard-to-describe sense that there’s an interesting solution to a problem that hasn’t yet been proposed, and they linger in the shadows of the mind, sometimes for decades, assembling new connections and gaining strength. And then one day they are transformed into something more substantial: sometimes jolted out by some newly discovered trove of information, or by another hunch lingering in another mind, or by an internal association that finally completes the thought.”
We’ve all been there: in the shower, in bed before falling asleep, on the subway, on the phone with a friend – turning over a vague notion that you just can’t shake from your mind, fragments of a concept with no language to support it, mental space with no structure or sense of relationship, a problem that you can’t quite elaborate or a solution with no evident problem, a curiosity on the edge of your mind that, no matter how hard you squint, you can’t quite make out.
The question of how to provide a structure for the cultivation of these mental amoebae is one that I’ve been struggling with these last couple of years. My good friend Alex and I get on the phone every Sunday and try to keep up an ongoing conversation around a number of themes that we find interesting. We’ve found this an incredibly useful way to keep these themes top of mind, and can identify a clear evolution in our thinking over the last 24 months.
Johnson addresses “hunch cultivation” in his chapter on the slow hunch and provides one simple practice to help take a concept from fuzzy to…well, less fuzzy: “write everything down.”
So over the next few weeks I think I’ll try just that, and use this blog as my forum for doing so. If nothing else, I’ll certainly find benefit in writing down my slow hunches, and hopefully a few folks will engage in the comments and help move them forward.