You need to expand the limit to your creative potential

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.”

You are what you let in

We live in an age where barriers are falling. Luck and skill are the only real impediments to my tweets, posts, updates or snaps setting the internet ablaze. The same can be said across industries and professions, as technology demolishes gatekeepers, shirks distance and weakens the moat of expertise.

It’s not quite right that all you need is a good idea. But almost. It definitely helps. The thing is, where do you get the idea? Where do they come from?

I’ve been taking a look at writing on creativity in the past week, reading Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson, and devouring Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon. Actually, I’ve well and truly fallen down the Kleon rabbit hole. I’m halfway through his second book, Show Your Work, and have spent far too much time on his blog.

It was an idea from early in Steal Like An Artist that really captured my imagination. Kleon is rather insistent on the concept that everything new is inherently informed by what has come before. There are no new ideas, but plays on old ones. Borrowings, remixes and mashups. As a result, it is vitally important to watch what you allow in. What you consume is directly tied to what you create.

“Just as you have a familial genealogy, you also have a genealogy of ideas. You don’t get to pick your family, but you can pick your teachers and you can pick your friends and you can pick the music you listen to and you can pick the books you read and you can pick the movies you see.”

A similar idea runs through Johnson’s book, which is full of beautiful examples of inventors “borrowing” from other fields. My favourite is Gutenberg, whose printing press repurposed a bunch of pre-existing technologies – movable type, ink, paper, and the wine press – a tool ubiquitous in his homeland. The Gutenberg press wasn’t the result of a stroke of brilliance, a revolution or technological leap forward, but of remixing things that already existed.

Of course, it’s not enough to just open your mind and let all the good stuff in. After all, I have far more access to ideas and information than any of my 17th century heroes. So Johnson introduces another, related idea, the commonplace book:

“Scholars, amateur scientists, aspiring men of letters – just about anyone with intellectual ambition in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was likely to keep a commonplace book. The great minds of the period – Milton, Bacon, Locke – were zealous believers in the memory-enhancing powers of the commonplace book.”

“In its most customary form, “commonplacing,” as it was called, involved transcribing interesting or inspirational passages from one’s reading, assembling a personalized encyclopedia of quotations.”

Imbibing good stuff is the first step. From there, you need to do something with it. Write it down. Try and draw some connections. Read and re read it. Apparently this was something Darwin was wont to do, as he not only took down new ideas, but reasoned them out on paper.

“Reading and writing were therefore inseparable activities. They belonged to a continuous effort to make sense of things, for the world was full of signs: you could read your way through it; and by keeping an account of your readings, you made a book of your own, one stamped with your personality.”

We need to position ourselves for the comparative advantages of the future

I’ve finally finished The Industries of The Future by Alec Ross. As the name suggests it is a thorough look at what lies ahead, from the point of view of the former Senior Adviser for Innovation to Hillary Clinton when she was Secretary of State. Taking care to constantly root his observations in humanity, Ross rapidly sweeps through the roles that will be played by robotics, code, data, the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence and much more. By grounding his observations in humanity I am referring to repeated references to history, perception and anecdote.

An unfortunate many of these kinds of books end up defeated by their own techno-utopianism. Written by participants or long-time watchers, many fail to grasp the effects so much of this change will have on those currently out of the loop – without capital, connections, requisite knowledge, who live in the periphery, or are the wrong gender or race. Ross takes a global view here, and his coverage of advances in Africa, especially, was better than I had seen before. He has a remarkable point of view – growing up the child of immigrants and relatively poor, but most recently coming in contact with many leaders of countries, companies and academia. The diversity of coverage and emphasis is not perfect, obviously, but better than I’ve seen.

I’ve already touched on a lot of this book, but I want to talk a little bit about Estonia, which features prominently in the final chapters. Estonia, a country of just over a million people, has a government determined to be at the forefront of the many changes Ross notes. With such a small population, and unable to put up barriers due to its membership of the Eurozone, this makes sense. But even more, Estonia has embraced the mindset of technology. It enshrined internet access as a human right in 2000, started teaching coding in the first grade, created an “e-residency” program to become a gateway to business services, and has rapidly moved to put as many government services online as it can.

In other words, Estonia has recognised that technology will mean ever more competition. And the only way to survive an increasingly winner-take-all world, is to equip yourselves and become a first mover. Even better, technology is levelling the playing field in many areas. As these quotes attest:

“[Estonian President Toomas Hendrik] Ilves thinks that the advancement of robotics serves Estonia well by giving the small countries of the world the chance to compete on the global stage with actors like China and India. He told me ‘It will increase our functional size tremendously because people don’t have to do things the machines can do.’ Estonia has only 1.3 million citizens.”

“How does a little country like Estonia compete in the same global marketplace as China, which has a labor force a little more than 1,000 times the size of its own? It takes advantage of the fact that robots enable a relatively small workforce to produce higher levels of output than would be the case in an all-human workforce. Estonia and China will never be equal competitors by sole virtue of their difference in size, but Estonia can compete at a level far above what its size would suggest by virtue of being cutting-edge in the field of robotics as both producer and consumer.”

Fears of losing legacy businesses and mass structural unemployment have caused many countries to pause for too long, and even try to fend off progress. But the world is being upended, and as President Ilves points out, our conceptions of what makes a comparative advantage are going to change dramatically, and very soon.

Will the raw materials of the information age be base metals? How can large populations continue to provide an economic boon as cheap manufacturing is done by robots, while social welfare systems remain? Do roads matter as much as internet access as location becomes less important? What gives a nation advantage in the future is likely to be very different from what we’ve seen before. We need to position ourselves to take advantage of them.

Success comes from being creative and overcoming constraints

There are a lot of little lessons in Chapter One, a book about the founding of Thankyou by Daniel Flynn. After all, it’s the story of three twenty-year olds with little experience in business or philanthropy, creating one of Australia’s most successful social enterprises – selling water, food and hygiene products to fund projects in developing countries. The ups and downs are half the fun.

But my favourite section comes right at the end, as Flynn reflects on this, the first chapter of his story.

“with less financial restrictions comes the temptation to pump money into things simply because you’ve got the budget for it. In doing so, you run the very high risk of spending on something that’s an average idea.”

A running theme throughout Flynn’s story are the odds in the way – his organisation, often buoyed only by belief and passionate supporters, facing off against entrenched interests and disbelieving middlemen. The story of Thankyou becomes the story of finding workarounds, of skipping the first step and coming back to it later.

As someone who writes a lot about startups, steeped in press releases about seed funding and the necessity of more capital, this is refreshing. Thankyou is a brand selling physical products, unlike someone purveying digital goods, the barriers to entry for Thankyou have been very high, but they always found a way. Thankyou was constantly validating, having to prove themselves. They are a far better organisation for it.

It also makes me think of older aid organisations, how mountains of cash and a place in the establishment can slowly rot away an institution with even the best of intentions. Incentives become misaligned, becoming more about perpetuation than the original goal. Cash is so bountiful that strategy and an emphasis on ROI melts away. Just think of Pro Publica’s stunning 2015 investigation into the Red Cross – how they raised half a billion dollars to build just six homes in Haiti.

Anyway, back to Flynn, and he comes up with a great image for the Thankyou method of getting started: letting the cart pull the horse. In this case, referring to the first ever product they launched, where they received an order for 50,000 bottles of water, and a donation of 30,000 bottles, before they had even setup the business or really sorted out a supplier. They then had to go find some money to make it all work. It might not have ever happened had they tried to do it the conventional way – have a great idea and go find someone to fund it.

“An example of the horse pulling the car would be: find your $20,000 start-up capital, then register the business, and then try and get a distribution deal. But the cart pulling the horse scenario is: land the 50,000 bottle order, then figure out a way to find the $20,000 you need to register and set up the business.”

Thankyou are currently selling Chapter One with a ‘pay what you want’ model on their website. Another example of constraints leading to creativity – they are raising money to fund an expansion into New Zealand.


Subscribe for a weekly digest of new posts.

You have Successfully Subscribed!