Where Good Ideas Come From (Review)

I was about half way through Where Good Ideas Come From when I decided I was going to read any book Steven Johnson comes out with regardless of subject matter. I had previously read The Invention of Air and The Ghost Map and enjoyed Johnson’s way of making connections I never would have thought of. Odds are that if anyone else was writing a book called Where Good Ideas Come From, I’d probably just be mildly amused by the concept and moved on, but if anyone might be able to figure out such an ethereal thing, I’d put my money on Steven Johnson.

While it would be relatively easy to take a handful of famous good ideas and point out what they all have in common, Johnson goes much further than that. Sure he talks about the invention of the printing press and air conditioning and television, but he also talks about things like coral reefs and evolution. He doesn’t restrict the concept of ‘good ideas’ just to famous and/or profitable things or even just to human innovation. Instead, he talks about all of this and adds to it the sort of habits and environments that promote the cultivation of good ideas.

Johnson’s informative, but what makes him so readable is how engaged he is in the subject matter. Reading a book by Steven Johnson is like sitting at a bar with the smartest person you know as he tells you his latest research project with all the enthusiasm and intensity you’d expect from an evangelist. He’s not preaching, but he’s definitely making a case.

He dispels the myth of sudden ‘eureka’ moments where ideas arrive fully formed or that closed off, secretive research and development labs are the  best places for good ideas. Many of the typical notions when it comes to coming up with good ideas aren’t nearly as prevalent as one might think. It turns out that ideas, much like people, work better when they are free. The more an idea can float around and bump into things, the better the idea can get. It might take years, but an idea can become a good idea when it interacts with just the right other idea.

Where Good Ideas Come From is one of the few books I’ve encountered that has actually changed my life and the way I create. I don’t think there’s higher praise I can give a book than that.

-Jack Cameron