Where Do Good Ideas Come From: A Q&A With Steven Johnson


What kinds of environments and societies give rise to good ideas? How can the average person maximize his odds of coming up with a great idea? These are the questions that Steven Johnson sets out to answer in his new book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, out next week.

Johnson is a prolific non-fiction author; his earlier books include The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic–and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World; The Invention of Air: A Story Of Science, Faith, Revolution, And The Birth Of America; and Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter. Johnson is good at a lot of things, but especially good at applying modern thinking to historical situations. He tweets here, and has 1.5 million followers.

A central argument of his new book is that good ideas are not the product of lone geniuses, but of connected networks. “[W]hat I would argue, and what you really need to kind of begin with, is this idea that an idea is a network on the most elemental level,” he said in a recent TED talk. “I mean, this is what is happening inside your brain. An idea, a new idea, is a new network of neurons firing in sync with each other inside your brain. It’s a new configuration that has never formed before. And the question is: how do you get your brain into environments where these new networks are going to be more likely to form?”

In the book, Johnson identifies seven patterns that are common to “fertile” environments: “The more we embrace these patterns – in our private work habits and hobbies, in our office environments, in the design of new software tools – the better we will be at tapping our extraordinary capacity for innovative thinking.” He takes readers on a journey that covers the great creative cities to the remote islands where Charles Darwin began to organize his thinking about evolution.

Johnson has agreed to answer your questions about his new book, so fire away in the comments section below. As always, we’ll post his answers in due time.


Thank you for posting on this valueable topic.

I once heard that people who live in a place with a change of seasons are more productive and I've wondered if there is any truth to that.

Darwin produced great ideas but if you believe David Quammen's account of his life in Song of the Dodo, then Alfred Wallace really should get at least half, if not all the credit for the Theory of Evolution. And he worked much faster than Darwin.

Michael F. Martin

What prescriptions would Mr. Johnson's thesis offer for reform of the patent system?


if you accept that there is a limit to what the human brain can understand, do you think it possible to run out of new ideas in a field of enquiry?- that is, as we push the epistemic boundaries in an intellectual endeavor, wouldn't we get to a point where the only 'new' ideas would be recycled old ones that were forgotten, but then remembered anew?


Thanks for the interesting topic. I haven't read the book but wanted to ask a question based on the above snippet.

I wonder if in addition to the environment, the amount of 'inspirations' that flow in to an individual is also an important aspect. I always think an idea doesn't just 'pop' , it's always based on collective inspirations over time.

Wanted to hear your insight on this.


Mr. Johnson:

Do you think inovation needs certain kind of "shelter from competition" to assure an optimal enviroment for new ideas? or do this enviroments tend to emerge from sharp competitive enviroments?

Thank You.


Does your book speak about the subconscious mind and its role, if any, in the area of good ideas.


I am surprised that Mr. Johnson does not reference the work of George H. Mead and William James as they did groundbreaking work on the nature of intelligence and it's social origin.


Dr. James Burke did a great job in tracing the history of innovative invention in his "Connections" series... especially the ones that are considered "great... or subtley effect our daily existance.

It highlights that almost every new good idea is an intellectual morphing of previous ideas, inventions, etc.

A wonderful series. If I was a history teacher it would be required viewin

If this is somewaht off-topic... my apologies.


What was your best Good Idea?

Ian Kemmish

Good ideas come from exactly the same place as bad ones. They just end up somewhere different. And, bearing in mind that Debussy once remarked that the one thing J S Bach really needed was a good editor, one could argue that most of our opinions about which ideas are good and which bad may be a tad premature anyway.

I had a few good ideas about computer graphics during my career. It later turned out that for many of them, between two and five people, in different countries, never having met or communicated, had had essentially the same idea within about six months of each other. One suspects that "skill in the art" plays a much greater part in coming up with good ideas than it is currently fashionable to give credit for.


It's amazing how frequently this idea comes up. But rather than even thinking "intracranially," people since Vygotsky in the Soviet Union (d. 1938) and pragmatists like Dewey understood this many, many years ago. So little of what we do and are is contained within ourselves, but rather lives in our interactions with others, and their interaction with others. This, of course, ought to have serious political and ethical implications (certainly both Vygotsky and Dewey thought so), and radicals like Saul Alinsky (the "father" of community organizing) and Antonio Gramsci (the Italian Communist leader in the 1920s and 1930s) understood that good political ideas came from a combination of rootedness in local experiences and extensive networks that can lead you to make new connections with what you know. Great topic, but funny that it's being proposed as something new.

Drill-Baby-Drill Drill Team

Potential Source of Good Ideas: The Internet.
---Also Potential Source of All Pornography.
Many Tools are Double Edged.


Good ideas come from the same place as bad ideas. Ideas are tested for fitness and what we deem 'good' are the ones that survive the tests.


Doesn't innovation involve another aspect, namely execution?

I often grow frustrated that our current system protects the idea with the government backed monopoly of a patent, while anyone who actually executes on an idea is exposed to lawsuits by many who often do not produce.

Does this mean that a healthy and growing public domain is important for fueling innovation?

Paul Swider

I would agree good ideas and innovation grow faster in collaborative, networked environments. But we have a society and organizations that don't always welcome the necessary openness. How do we demonstrate to government, corporations, NGOs (often very closed) and others that sharing information, ideas, brainstorms, even failures can lead to greater progress (and profit) for all? What specific examples can you share of orgs that did this, that networked richly and benefited?

Laura Creighton

Congratulations on your new book. I really liked reading Ghost Map and look forward to getting the "Ideas" book next.

I just came from a highly collaborative meeting where thethree of us seemed to be experiencing peak mental performance simultaneously....quite a miracle. We may not have solved all the problems of the world, but we made large headway into solving a persistent one we've faced at work. The 1930's book "Think and Grow Rich" noted almost an alignment of minds allowing a boost of effective thinking/mental openness for an idea to be better recognized in. I'm wondering if your book tackles this feeling that collaborative discussion gives exponential boosts to successful ideation similar to what I felt today.


Some thoughts...and a question.

Solomon said there is nothing new under the sun. Isn't the book just a rephrasing of that? That is, we have all these seemingly separate bits of knowledge and wisdom, then--viola!--they come together in a new configuration that is an advance. (Which is, I suppose, kind of the whole notion of genetic evolution in a nutshell.)

Of course, for the most part, there is a catalyst that drives our brains to mix and match until we hit upon a possible solution. In my case, the catalyst is usually (I hate to say it)...LAZINESS.

That is, if I'm doing some task that is repetitive, boring, trite, odious, overly complex, too slow, etc., I start looking for ways to either get out of the job completely (with some invention perhaps), or to at least make the job bearable (and perhaps attract some accolades along the way).

Many years ago, I worked for a major corporation in which massive reams of paper were thrown away each day from the daily reports. In fact, much more was thrown away than was retained. This had been going on forever. My job (then an entry level report clerk) was to break up these reports from the massive reams of paper, throw away the waste, and deliver the reports.

Fast forward a year ahead. The reports had been reduced by 70%. I could literally carry in my arms ALL the reports I had to deliver, when before I had over 10 BOXES of reports to deal with.

Don't underestimate laziness.

I think "Get Rich Quick" is a subset of laziness, for it has driven me a few times to come up with ideas for get rich quick. You know that stock--GOLD--that began on the Australian Stock Exchange, and which is a stock that tracks the price of gold? That was MY idea--or at least an idea that I came up with independently and SENT to some gold corporations in Australia for review and comment. Eighteen months later, it was on the exchange, and I didn't even get acknowledged.

Now, it MIGHT have been that they came up with it independently themselves. But you'd think that financial experts would have come up with that a long time before get-rich-quick me came up with it.

I was almost a billionaire! Ha!

In any case, IT TAKES PARTNERS. Even if the idea is yours alone, you need information, know-how, contacts, and so forth, to bring an idea to its full flower.


Eric M. Jones

Good ideas arise in an environment where they are needed, appreciated and nourished, from people whose brains, souls and spirits have a certain creative edge (this is not a mystery and usually can be identified early).

Of course, we have institutions that usually crush these spirits. I see young minds who I know will be crushed beneath the rollers of society. Those who aren't crushed become embittered, secretive and less productive.

See the Ted.com talk entitled: "Ken Robinson says schools kill creativity."

All children are born creative. Becoming an adult whilst retaining one's creativity is hard.

first time caller

"Marty McFly: No, wait! Doc. Doc. The-the-the bruise - the bruise on your head. I know how that happened! You told me the whole story. You were standing on your toilet, and you were hanging a clock, and you fell, and you hit your head on the sink. And that's when you came up with the idea for the Flux Capacitor... " (back to the future)

Randy Frid

I've asked numerous audiences two questions:

1. How many of you have had a good idea in the past couple of years?

Answer: Almost everyone raises their hands.

2. Now, how may of you have seen your ideas fully manifest into reality?

Answer: Almost everyone drops their hands.

I find there is no limit to the amount of new and good ideas. Everyone gets them, in virtually every environment (Public, Private, and Military sectors), all the time.

The real problem appears to be one of actually creating the proper environment and associated processes to harvest and assess ideas, define a means of compensation for ideas, and develop the capabilities and capacity to bring the best ideas through their full life cycle?