It seems appropriate to launch my month-long exploration of great ideas by asking, where do great ideas come from? The labels we attach to the birth of great ideas give the impression that they burst forth, fully grown –kind of like the big bang. We talk about a flash of illumination or stroke of brilliance. We use the image of a lightbulb to illustrate the eureka moment when an idea erupts into existence. But is that accurate? According to Steven Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From, A Natural History of Innovation, idea generation is more of a ‘slow hunch’ rather than an instantaneous burst of brilliance. Check out Johnson’s wonderful animated YouTube explanation.
So here’s my interpretation of how ideas come to be. Over a period of time, we absorb bits and pieces of information which then lay dormant, like a nest of baby ideas—I’ll call them ‘idealings’. These idealings stay warm and cozy in our minds, incubating and occasionally, snuggling up to other idealings. At some point, two or more, many more, idealings start to stir and wake up and play and bounce off of each other until – POW! – quantum collision and a full-blown idea is born.
No wonder we think of it as a ‘flash’ of brilliance. But the flash is actually the stored up energy of many small ideas fermenting for a long time.
Okay, so that’s not at all the way Johnson explains it but I kind of like that imagery. But here’s a key point: in order to collide and become one great idea, those idealings don’t all have to be in one brain. In fact, we probably have to let our little idealings play and bounce off of other idealings incubating in other brains.
It appears that the more diverse and well-socialized the idealings are, the better they are at turning into great ideas. So it follows that if you want to be a person of great ideas, you need to inhabit an environment where your darling little unborn idealings can mingle with other people’s idealings.
It doesn’t even have to be a real-life physical environment. Idealings can be found, for example, in the written word. It can even be a virtual environment; one where your little idealings can hear the murmuring of other little idealings via the World Wide Web and wake up and start to comingle.
It does seem to call for a willingness to be open though – to share ideas and be open to listening to other ideas. Quite the opposite of some of the mind spaces we inhabit – those where competition is feared and ideas are hoarded and protected from potential poachers.
So rather than the idea that great ideas are born of introspection and silence, it appears that the real spawning environment for ideas is more of a party setting ; lots of talking, sharing, bouncing off of each other, conjugating. Hmmm, great news for us extroverts. But is it accurate? What do you think?
In the interest of promoting great ideas, I’m providing a spawning ground. Share your idea in the Great Idea Challenge. Check it out here!