Manila, Philippines

Good Read: Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson

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Found this book intriguing as I wanted to improve my creativity and brainstorming skills, I wanted to enhance and practice the way I generate “good ideas”. This is not your usual book pointing you to various directions on where to look for your next investment or business idea, or giving you a listing of the hottest business ideas for 2017. Instead, it discusses the process (usually slow process) on how a good idea is born, hibernates, and what kinds of environments such ideas thrive from and mutate.


In the book, Johnson argues that we often think of ideas as breakthroughs, as if it’s always a eureka moment, much like how we think geniuses in Malcolm’s Outliers as inborn gifted children instead of a product of 10,000 hours of dedicated work. The truth is, most of the time, ideas are adaptations of previous ideas, a new application of an existing device, a product of serendipity, a useful error, and sometimes, ideas can be ahead of its time.

His book touches on 7 major chapters, as follows:


How we adopt ideas from what we know to the next possible application, how we expand our boundaries via transitioning from what we know to how what we know can apply to new territories. One at a time.

I recall in our Strategic Thinking workshop an anecdote on how Henry Sy Sr. supposedly built his group of companies. Official or not, accurate or not, I believe this gives us a better picture of Johnson’s adjacent possible. Henry Sy Sr. presumably liked people watching, so he started via observing Filipinos, realizing that Pinoys like to stroll and walk, we are fond of pamamasyal, hence he thought of selling shoes — ShoeMart was born.

But then he noticed that after buying their footwear, it will take months for them to go back to him and buy again, so repeat customers were low and repeat purchases took time. So he thought of a faster product to consume – groceries so his supermarket chains started. Then, why not sell more products aside from grocery items? How about a department store? Here Juan’s malling experience is starting to expand.


Eventually, food courts were added, then cinemas to complete the shopping experience. Afterwards, why not build residential areas where there are commercial spaces at the ground floors? We’re not even talking about the flow of money in these entities where the banking businesses will come in. Pictured above, our Strategic Thinking trainor illustrated the progression of the Sy businesses via hexagons (like in beehives), to better illustrate how the next adjacent possibilities fit in.


Where ideas can best thrive, in a sharing environment rather than in silos. The constant divide between trying to protect one’s ideas (due to monetary potential), copyrights, patents etc. versus sharing it openly for debate and discussion, to further enhance and perfect such idea.

I won’t spoil of enjoying the full contents of the book so let me just leave here the other chapters:

  • The Slow Hunch: it takes time! And sometimes, it’s not yet time.
  • Serendipity: “the power of accidental connection”
  • Error
  • Exaptation
  • Platforms

Below are some quotable quotes. Another major learning I got from the book was to take notes of every little idea or concept I come across with, who know’s it might come in handy in the future. Read, write notes, then read some more. For note taking, I use the Evernote app.


All quotes below are obviously from the book:

What the adjacent possible tells us is that at any moment the world is capable of extraordinary change, but only certain changes can happen.

The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore those boundaries. Each new combination ushers new combinations into the adjacent possible.

Technological (and scientific) advances rarely break out of the adjacent possible; the history of cultural progress is, almost without exception, a story of one door leading to another door, exploring the palace one room at a time.

Without noise, evolution would stagnate, an endless series of perfect copies, incapable of change. But because DNA is susceptible to error—whether mutations in the code itself or transcription mistakes during replication—natural selection has a constant source of new possibilities to test.

Innovative environments thrive on useful mistakes, and suffer when the demands of quality control overwhelm them.

An important part of Gutenberg’s genius, then, lay not in conceiving an entirely new technology from scratch, but instead from borrowing a mature technology from an entirely different field, and putting it to work to solve an unrelated problem.


Legendary innovators like Franklin, Snow, and Darwin all possess some common intellectual qualities—a certain quickness of mind, unbounded curiosity—but they also share one other defining attribute. They have a lot of hobbies.

It is not so much a question of thinking outside the box, as it is allowing the mind to move through multiple boxes. That movement from box to box forces the mind to approach intellectual roadblocks from new angles, or to borrow tools from one discipline to solve problems in another.

Ideas, Jefferson argues, have an almost gravitational attraction toward the fourth quadrant. The natural state of ideas is flow and spillover and connection. It is society that keeps them in chains.

If you really want to get into a debate about which system is more “natural,” then the free flow of ideas is always going to trump the artificial scarcity of patents. Ideas are intrinsically copyable in the way that food and fuel are not. You have to build dams to keep ideas from flowing.

Go for a walk; cultivate hunches; write everything down, but keep your folders messy; embrace serendipity; make generative mistakes; take on multiple hobbies; frequent coffeehouses and other liquid networks; follow the links; let others build on your ideas; borrow, recycle, reinvent.

My Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

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