Where Good Ideas Come From is one of the most thought provoking books I have ever read. Part history, part thesis, part guide. It sent me down more than one rabbit hole, as I sought to explore Johnson’s anecdotes and ideas.

The book is built upon a central proposition, one I mentioned in a previous post – our ideas are the sum of our influences. Johnson puts this more artfully:

“ideas are works of bricolage; they’re built out of that detritus. We take the ideas we’ve inherited or that we’ve stumbled across, and we jigger them together into some new shape.”

This premise inevitably leads to several interesting conclusions. If innovation is fuelled by what has come before, the trope of the solitary inventor is nonsensical. So is the image of breakthroughs as the product of “eureka” moments rather than steady contemplation- something for which Johnson expresses particular disdain. Rather, new and good ideas are the product of openness, mixing and reflection.

It’s important, then, to be open to new things, in whatever guise. Your influences are the raw material of your ideas. As they expand so will your pool of potential ideas. Johnson illustrates this using the most powerful and beautiful idea in the book, one which he stole from biologist Stuart Kauffman – the adjacent possible.

“The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.”

As originally conceived by Kauffman, the adjacent possible defined all the possible chemical reactions, the total amount of combinations, that could be achieved in the primordial soup. There is a finite number of combinations that can be made, but this number grows as each new combination brings with it more possibilities.

The more you add to the mix, the more you remix, the more possibilities. The boundaries recede. Ideas are just like this.

“The adjacent possible is as much about limits as it is about openings. At every moment in the timeline of an expanding biosphere, there are doors that cannot be unlocked yet.”

 

“Think of it as a house that magically expands with each door you open. You begin in a room with four doors, each leading to a new room that you haven’t visited yet. Those four rooms are the adjacent possible. But once you open one of those doors and stroll into that room, three new doors appear, each leading to a brand-new room that you couldn’t have reached from your original starting point.”

The key for all of us, then, is to expand our own adjacent possible. To keep introducing new sources, new raw material. The limit to your creative potential is what you let in.

“The history of life and human culture, then, can be told as the story of a gradual but relentless probing of the adjacent possible, each new innovation opening up new paths to explore.”