Over the past decade, there has been a surge of a certain category of nonfiction that strives to take highly complicated concepts from a variety of scientific and academic disciplines and weave them together into a compelling, illuminating, educational narrative full of real-world anecdotes. Often called “pop-economics” or “pop-science,” when such books of this ilk are at their best (think anything by Malcolm Gladwell or Freakonomics), they become an intoxicating tale that is hard to put down. Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From is poised to be the next in a long line of excellent contributions to the pop-(insert field of study here) genre.
Like most others, he covers a lot of ground. Johnson takes the reader on a guided tour that goes from stories of Charles Darwin in the Galapagos to FBI counter-terrorism agents in Phoenix to physicists in a Johns Hopkins cafeteria to Johannes Gutenberg in Rhineland, Germany. Each story is as engaging as the next and, together, they lay out the means by which true, innovative thought develops.
In short, great ideas are nearly always based on the very good ideas before them, not rooted in epiphanies or “eureka moments.” Real innovation, at least that which can be put into practice, percolates slowly as hundreds of mini-concepts blend into a fabric of advanced cognition. It also often requires a lot of trial and error-and just some good old-fashioned luck.
A person’s environment and network also has a lot to do with spurring innovation. This runs a lot deeper than simply setting up a Google-style, creative office environment, but Johnson does suggest that an open, interactive community in which ideas are free-flowing and abundant is a more innovation-friendly climate than a rigid collection of individuals working alongside one another.
While that is well and good, the real reason to read Where Good Ideas Come From is the same as its predecessors in the pop-science genre: there is probably no easier way to learn something than by flipping through a really good book that is also educational.