The Slow Hunch: How Small Inklings Become Novel Inventions

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Where Good Ideas Come From" by Steven Johnson. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you have any half-baked ideas rattling around in your head? What if you could turn them into fully-baked brilliance?

Sometimes hunches lead to full-fledged ideas. If you’re patient and keep working on them, you could end up with something quite usable. In Where Good Ideas Come From, best-selling author and theorist Steven Johnson explains how good ideas grow from minor inklings to groundbreaking inventions.

Keep reading to learn how the “slow hunch” can mature into something of great value.

The Slow Hunch

Most ideas take a long time to develop and require a lot of patience. They begin as suspicions, hunches, or ideas that aren’t yet complete, and often, they need to be combined with other people’s unfinished ideas to take shape—which is part of why idea networks are so important. The “slow hunch” can brew for years or decades before it finds the other ideas that complete it and push it into the realm of the adjacent possible.

(Shortform note: It’s easy to get impatient or frustrated when you have an incomplete idea brewing that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. This can lead you to fall prey to the creative cliff illusion—the misconception that most of your good ideas happen early and that, once they stop flowing quickly, you’re “out” of ideas. This can lead you to give up too soon and abandon ideas that aren’t quite complete. Research suggests that the greatest number of our good ideas occur near the end of any given period of idea generation, suggesting that patience and perseverance are essential in the cultivation of ideas.)

Johnson distinguishes these unfinished ideas from gut instincts. While both can act as underlying ideas that lead to something greater, gut instincts are immediate and fast. Unfinished ideas or hunches begin with an inexpressible suspicion that there is something greater at play in a situation or problem you’re considering, and they don’t lend themselves to quick decisions like gut instincts do. Instead, they remain in the back of your mind for long periods of time, slowly connecting to new things you’re learning and eventually coalescing into a whole idea that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

(Shortform note: Other experts make less of a clear distinction between hunches and gut instincts, suggesting that gut instincts may actually be responsible for the “inexpressible suspicion” that Johnson says sparks a half-formed idea. They propose that gut instincts are vital for making judgments and decisions, both of which are necessary aspects of the development and refinement of unfinished ideas. However, some experts caution against relying too much on gut instinct to make decisions, as it can cause us to fall back on hidden biases and limited ideas.)

It’s easy to lose track of these long-term partial ideas. They can be nebulous and ill-defined, which makes them easy to forget. To keep track of these ideas, Johnson recommends that you record each one that you have.

(Shortform note: Recording every idea you have immediately is not always feasible, especially considering our greatest moments of inspiration often occur when we are engaged in activities like showering. To remember these insights, you can take steps to improve your memory such as getting exercise and good sleep or using mnemonic devices. If you’ve already forgotten an idea, you can try retracing the thought process that led you to it or even physically retrace your footsteps to trigger your memory of the idea.)

The Slow Hunch: How Small Inklings Become Novel Inventions

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Steven Johnson's "Where Good Ideas Come From" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Where Good Ideas Come From summary:

  • How the world's best inventions grow from minor inklings
  • How capitalism negatively impacts innovation
  • Why making mistakes is essential to great innovations

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, science, and philosophy. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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