“Chance Favours the Connected Mind” (S. Johnson) — Jen Doyle

Where Good Ideas Come From… Steven Johnson

One of my favourite things to do when I’m relaxing or working around the house is to listen to CBC radio and at the beginning of January I was listening to Spark. Nora Young was interviewing Steven Johnson. His most recent book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, was the topic at hand. I was immediately engaged. The central approach to the origin of great ideas was environmental. Johnson asks “What are the spaces that have historically led to unusual rates of creativity and innovation?” Johnson suggests being in environments where we can borrow and combine hunches and turn them into something new is one of the common traits in the formation of breakthrough ideas.

As someone who tends to be a global thinker this approach to generating ideas is an appealing one. Most of my recreational learning happens in the form of watching TED talks, discussing, combining, and constructing burgeoning ideas with my peers, chatting in coffee shops, following blogs (and then checking out the blogs these bloggers follow), listening to the radio, making art, playing music, reading newspapers, and following links on social media sites that my friends have recommended. I do this type of recreational learning for pleasure and often this type of learning informs and adds greater depth and perspective to my primary research and if not to my primary research it informs my way of thinking. In this respect I’m far from alone. A brief hour spent in a coffee shop listening to the conversations around me suggests this type of thinking and combining of ideas is flourishing.

Now, the path to epiphany moments is fraught with “mutation and error and serendipity” as Johnson suggests and this leads to an “unlock[ing of] new doors in the biosphere’s adjacent possible”. This in itself is fun to think about and makes the tangents and errors and “discoveries” along the way purposeful, but when we combine this idea with the idea of exaptation, which “help[s] us explore the new possibilities that lurk behind those [previously locked and recently opened] doors.” For example, “A match you light to illuminate a darkened room turns out to have a completely different use when you open a doorway and discover a room with a pile of logs and a fireplace in it. A tool that helps you see in one context ends up helping you keep warm in another. That’s the essence of exaptation” (156-57). So, round up your friends from across disciplines (and within), strike up a conversation in the coffee shop with the person next to you and approach the ideas, and things in your environment with curiosity and a sense of the possible. Who knows what we might come up with?!

I think I’ll go get a coffee.


The Centre for Teaching Excellence welcomes contributions to its blog. If you are a faculty member, staff member, or student at the University of Waterloo (or beyond!) and would like contribute a posting about some aspect of teaching or learning, please contact Mark Morton or Trevor Holmes.

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