where good ideas come from

Where Good Ideas Come From

For the past two blog posts, I have been talking about resolutions. The first one featured five tips to consider when writing your resolutions. The last one featured my own four resolutions that I will aim to accomplish by the end of the year. One of those, if you remember, is my goal to read fifteen books throughout the year of 2020.

In order to practice what I preach, I have decided to make a blog post dedicated to the status of those resolutions. This way I can hold myself accountable (tip #5) and I can keep all of my readers up-to-date in a virtual buddy system of sorts.

With that being said, I recently just completed my first book of 2020 called Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson. My first out of fifteen! As part of Lit Lovers, I started this book in December of 2019, but we just had our last meeting for the month and I feel it’s only necessary that I write about the essence of this book just like I did with George Orwell’s 1984, here.

In this book, Johnson details seven ways that all good ideas come into inception. Those ways include:

Where Good Ideas Come From
  1. The Adjacent Possible
  2. Liquid Networks
  3. The Slow Hunch
  4. Serendipity
  5. Error
  6. Exaptation
  7. Platforms

To see a full review of this book, here is the link to review on Goodreads.

The key takeaway in this book that Johnson mentions is that good ideas rarely form in a “eureka” moment by themselves. Typically, they form while in the midst of discussions with people who are completely different than us. They form in what Johnson calls “liquid networks” which are essentially environments that are not static. Specifically, liquid networks are the group of people you associate with and those people should be from all different classes and walks of life if you want the greatest chance of initiating the start of a good idea.

The reason that I mention this is because while reading this book and realizing this general trend, I also connected this to real life where I am living. I now see the reason why many universities in the States have a liberal arts degree and make undergraduates take two years of general education requirements so that they can figure out what they want to do if they are unsure. While those who already go into university knowing what they want to do believe this is a waste of time, it isn’t. This effort to make us more fully-rounded individuals is also subconsciously affecting our creativity.

While it seems only logical that the more sources of information we have, the more chances we have for creativity, Johnson makes the point of mentioning that good ideas come from a mixture of collisions in an often serendipitous moment of interaction. Meaning, you could be sitting in a geology course, learning about something as dull as the composition and properties of quartz and all a sudden an idea sparks (pun intended) in your brain as to how to harvest the electromagnetic pulse that quartz emits while you put pressure on it.

This actually happened to me while writing my series, but I never really understood why it happened until I read this book. That idea then led me to the conceptualization of another device in my book. This is described in the book as the “adjacent possible”—an area where things can develop because of those ideas and inventions before it. For example, YouTube could not have been formed without the formation of the Internet first.

Furthermore, the reason why I want to point this out is because, by reading this book, I also know why many individuals in China lack creativity. It is one thing to blame the lack of outside information; of course, that is a factor. Like I mentioned before, the more sources of information you have, the more you know, the higher the chances are that random pieces of information will make that clash of serendipitous interaction and create a good idea. Also, though, it is because, when it comes to schooling, Chinese students rarely get a choice at what their courses will actually be.

On the other hand, In the States, students can choose electives. I, myself, chose a cooking class, Spanish, and I was even allowed to join some clubs such as debate and theater. Here, Chinese students ONLY do school. Perhaps they have the weekend to do extra curriculars like dance or music, but I highly believe now, upon reading this book, that this is also another problem with Chinese education—well, that is if the goal is to make students better at critical thinking.

Of course, I should be careful with general, blanket statements such as these, and I by no means am trying to imply that all Chinese people that I’ve run into lack creativity; some of them are incredibly creative, but, in general, many times they lack critical thinking.

Actually, I thought perhaps this was due to the language barrier. Here in China, my goal is to prepare students to take the writing portion of the TOEFL IbT and the SAT exam. Many times throughout this semester, I’ve found myself frustrated because it didn’t seem like my students actually put in effort. They didn’t know how to expand their ideas (which is the whole point of a body paragraph in an essay).

To put this theory to the test, I asked multiple students who had always handed me in less-than-satisfactory papers to write their paper in Chinese. Then, I told one of the Chinese teachers my grading criteria and had them grade it. I wanted to see if they could even write this four-paragraph essay in their mother tongue, because if they can’t do it in that, then there is no way they can do it in a foreign language. My hunch was right. Many of the students didn’t even know how to write the essay in their own language, and again, this goes back to this idea of critical thinking.

By regulating what they are taught and learn throughout their life (instead of it being open and free such as in a liquid network), China is, in turn, killing the creativity of their students. This makes my job even harder. At times, it feels a little impossible to be honest.

During the last meeting where we discussed the novel in its entirety, we were talking and internalizing everything Johnson mentioned in his novel. Mostly, the idea about serendipitous connections and how they happen within ourselves through dreams, the literature we read, etc. liquid networks, like those of your friends, colleagues, etc. they provide you other opportunities for those connections to happen because they are given you more random information that could be connected in some way.

Actually, this is why teaching is such a valuable profession because you have many different types of teachers all in the same office together (in China we all share an office) and we are all talking and sharing ideas, and we all come from different backgrounds of life. That, in essence, is how the environment of good ideas comes about. It’s an environment where they can have sex with each other and are born. Same as the Lit Lovers book club.

Another thing I just thought of is the word brainstorm. A storm is an onslaught of activity. It’s a whirlwind of weather essentially. This is the type of environment is exactly where good ideas come from so it only makes sense that this should happen in the brain. Crazy how language works, yeah?

Although this wasn’t the first non-fiction, self-help book that I’ve read, it is the first time that I have discussed it in a book club like Lit Lovers. That idea, in and of itself, is essentially the whole concept behind this book where there is an open exchange of ideas. Said by many different personality types and ethnicities (Chinese, America, Korean, etc.) mesh and mold into a riveting conversation, and through serendipitous collision, even better ideas are thought up. In fact, that is how some of the Heartbeat studio (the location where I host the Lit Lovers book club) started.

This should show you the value of reading. Like I mentioned in the blog post about my top five self-help books, these types of books (while rudimentary in the knowledge they actually give) help us shed light on why we do the things we do or why things are the way they are. They don’t necessarily add new information; all of it is most likely stuff we knew already, but reading helps us piece together tidbits of information so that we can grow more and more as an individual. You didn’t need this blog post to tell you that; surely, you already knew it. But, this blog post does its job in reaffirming that belief that reading is good for you and that, as we begin the new year, I challenge you, as well, to tackle a stack of books. Who knows what you might end up learning? Who knows the type of ideas that may end up sprouting? Who knows how you will grow by the end of the year?  

Finally, during this book club meeting, we shared our thoughts on the most valuable place where good ideas come from. Me, personally, I rely on serendipitous networks. Some of the best ideas have come from within myself after I read, listen, or talk with someone (like the quartz example I mentioned earlier). One woman said the Slow Hunch because if there is no problem to solve then she wouldn’t start looking for a solution to begin with. Finally, the third woman said it was our platforms (meaning the means we use to get information or disseminate information. With the advent of Instagram, Google, etc. there are many more ways to get good ideas). If you’ve read the book, feel free to chime in, where do you believe good ideas come from? Which of these 7 is most important to you in the inception of ideas?

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