Book notes: Where Good Ideas Come From

by Steven Johnson

Seven Patterns


Ideas are works of bricolage.

First-order combinations build on each other. New combinations users new combinations into the adjacent possible.

When ideas are “ahead of their time”, the first-order ingredients are not completely in place. E.g., Babbage’s Analytical Engine.

The trick is to get more spare parts on the table to use as first-order ingredients.


Networks to be effective: 1) need to have sheer size 2) must be very plastic and adaptable.

Carbon-life is so likely because abundance of molecules and the number of configurations that molecules can connect to it.

Must be at the edge of chaos: the fertile zone between too much order and too much anarchy

Information spillover: when sharing a culture in a high-density environment ideas tend to flow from mind to mind.

Talking shop: Most important ideas emerge during regular lab meetings, where researchers huddle around a conference table and informally present and discuss their latest work.

Work environments need to straddle balance between chaos and order. Modular office space is ideal.


Secret to hunch cultivation is to WRITE EVERYTHING DOWN.

The commonplace book is a fine line between order and chaos. You don’t want too much organization. Categories build barriers between disparate ideas.

In the past, reading and writing were inseparable activities. Reading was cross-referenced with other books.


The more disorganized your brain is, the smarter you are.

The electric noise of the chaos mode allows the brain to experiment with new links between neurons that ould otherwise fail to connect in more orderly settings. The phase-lock mode is where the brain executes an established plan or habit. The chaos mode is where the brain assimilates new information, explores strategies for responding to a changed situation. Chaos mode is a kind of background dreaming: a wash of noise that makes new connections possible.

Serendipity needs unlikely collision and discoveries, but it also needs something to anchor those discoveries.


  • Go for a walk, take long showers, or soak in tubs
  • Batch read from varied collections in a condensed amount of time to assimilate new ideas
  • Avoid the Filter Bubble
  • Make a Commonplace Book


Penicillin from mold due to science experiment mistake.

The errors of the great mind exceed in number those of the less vigorous one.

Sheer quantity ultimately leads to quality.

Error often creates a path that leads you out of your comfortable assumptions. Being right keeps you in place. Being wrong forces you to explore.

Good ideas are more likely to emerge in environments that contain a certain amount of noise and error.

DNA mutation introduces noise and opens up the adjacent possible. There’s a small but stable error rate in DNA transcoding that is an optimal balance between too much mutation and too much stability.

Mutation rate in human germ cells is roughly one in thirty million base pairs. This means genetic inheritance from parents to child comes with roughly 150 mutations.

Stress causes more mutation to occur. More mutations when life is a struggle may give just the advantage needed to survive. But is tempered by sex.


Gutenberg press was made possible by the wine press—borrowing a mature technology from an entirely different field, and putting to work to solve an unrelated problem.

Examptation: an organism develops a trait optimized for a specific use, but then the trait gets hijacked for a completely different function.


  • symmetrical feathers provide insulation. Assymetrical feathers act as an airfoil. A feather adapted for warmth is now exapted for flight
  • vacuum tube adapted to make signals louder, exapted to turn those signals into information
  • hyperlinks adapted for navigation, exapted for assessing quality via PageRank
  • narrative writing devices like stream of consciousness adapted for specific use, exapted as a new genre
  • skeuomorphism: desktop with pieces of paper exapted as graphical interface in computers

All decisive events in the history of scientific thought can be described in terms of mental cross-fertilization between different disciplines.

Concepts from one domain migrate to another as a kind of structuring metaphor, thereby unlocking some secret door that had long been hidden from view.

Cities are environments that are ripe for exaptation, because they cultivate specialized skills and interests, and they create a liquid network where information can leak out of those subcultures, and influence their neighbors in surprising ways.

Third place, a connective environment distinct from the more insular world of home or office. Coffeehouses. Breeding ground for cross-fertilization.

Diverse fields of expertise, horizontal social networks are three times more innovative than uniform, vertical networks.

Weak Ties Across Disparate Fields

A new technology developed in one idea-space can migrate over to another idea-space through these long-distance connections; in that new environment, the technology may turn out to have unanticipated properties, or may trigger a connection that leads to a new breakthrough.

Apple’s concurrent or parallel production: all the groups—design, manufacturing, engineering, sales—meet continuously through the product-development cycle, brainstorming, trading ideas and solutions, strategizing over the most pressing issues, and generally keeping the conversation open to a diverse group of perspectives.

Have lots of hobbies

Ben Franklin was a dilettante in many fields.

One project takes center stage for a series of hours or days, yet the other projects linger in the margins of consciousness throughout. That cognitive overlap is what makes this mode so innovative. The current project can exapt ideas from the projects at the margins. Allow the mind to move through multiple boxes. Moving from box to box forces the mind to approach intellectual roadblocks from new angles, or to borrow tools from one discipline to solve problems in another.


The platform builders and ecosystem engineers do not just open a door in the adjacent possible. They build an entire new floor.

Example: advent of GPS (by tracking Sputnik) has allowed Web 2.0 mashups; leading to APIs.

The Web is a layers upon layers of platforms.

Genres supply a set of implicit rules that have enough coherence that traditionalists can safely play inside them, and more adventurous artists can confound our expectations by playing with them. Genres are the platforms and paradigms of the creative world.

THE FOURTH QUADRANT (Non-Market/Network)

It is in the nature of good ideas to stand on the shoulders of the giants who came before them. This means is fundamentally a network affair.

Matrix based on Market/Non-Market and Individual/Network

The more the government thinks of itself as an open platform instead of a centralized bureaucracy, the better it will be for all of us, citizens and activists and entrepreneurs alike.

E.g., initiative.

All the patterns of innovation—liquid networks, slow hunches, serendipity, noise, exaptation, emergent platforms—do best in open environments where ideas flow in unregulated channels.

When you introduce financial rewards into a system, barricades and secrecy emerge, making it harder for the open patterns of innovation to work their magic.

Universities have ivory-tower isolation from the real world, but most of the paradigmatic ideas in science and technology have roots in academic research.

Fourth-quadrant innovation creates a new open platform that commercial entities can then build upon, either by repackaging and refining the original breakthrough, or by developing emergent innovations on top of the underlying platform.

He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. —Thomas Jefferson

The natural state of ideas is flow and spillover and connection.

In summary: Go for a walk; cultivate hunches; write everything down, but keep your folders messy; embrace serendipity; make generative mistakes; take on multiple hobbies; frequent coffeehouses and other liquid networks; follow the links; let others build on your ideas; borrow, recycle, reinvent.

Book notes: Where Good Ideas Come From

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