How to Cultivate Sudden Insights: Taking Advantage of Serendipity

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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Have you ever taken a “reading vacation”? Do you collaborate with artificial intelligence? Do you think in the shower—or just sing?

You might wonder how people come up with incredible innovations. Best-selling author and theorist Steven Johnson explores where good ideas come from. Sometimes, they come from epiphanies, and he shares ways to take advantage of serendipitous moments.

Keep reading to learn how to cultivate sudden insights that could lead to exciting places.

Cultivating Sudden Insights

In Where Good Ideas Come From, Johnson explains the science of serendipity and provides his advice on how to cultivate sudden insights. First, Johnson recommends taking a walk or a bath. These activities take your mind off of your daily tasks and put you in a more associative state, letting your unconscious mind make those important connections.

(Shortform note: The phenomenon of getting sudden insights during activities like baths or walks is known as the shower principle. However, some experts caution against giving too much credence to ideas generated during these activities, suggesting that they can be so exciting you may overlook practical limitations and fail to realize they’re unfeasible or unachievable.)

Another way to open yourself up to sudden insights is to take in as much new information as you can through reading or other means. Johnson notes that a flaw in this process is that it’s easy to forget what you’ve learned from these sources if you’re only taking in a little bit of information each day. He points out that people like Bill Gates take annual reading vacations, where they take a week or more to deep dive into books they’ve added to their reading list, allowing them to absorb and process all the new information in a concentrated period of time. Johnson suggests that it may benefit workplaces to allot time for such vacations since they can be so beneficial in creating new ideas.

(Shortform note: Reading vacations may be especially productive if you’re reading physical books rather than doing research on the internet. Experts suggest that we’re often much more distracted when reading online because of the prevalence of hyperlinks in text, which causes a break in our concentration as we decide whether or not to click the link. There are also other issues like frequently pausing our reading to check email or attend to some other task. Setting aside large chunks of time to just take in information from physical books can greatly enhance your concentration and retention.)

Experts also recommend practicing introspection and opening your mind up to personal change in order to prompt more epiphanies.

(Shortform note: Research suggests that dreaming and daydreaming facilitate creative thinking by activating the brain’s default network. This is a group of neural structures that activate when you’re resting or doing a passive activity. However, while there is substantial evidence to suggest that the activation of this network produces a creative state, a causal link has not yet been proven, and there is scientific debate about what parts of the brain constitute the default network and what causes them to activate.)

Collaborating With Technology

Additionally, Johnson suggests that technology can help us make sudden insights. He describes an indexing software that he uses called DEVONthink that helps him catalog information and search for it with an algorithm that detects not only verbatim search terms but also terms related to what he’s searching (like returning results including the word “waste” when he searches for the word “sewage”). He describes how this tool has given him insights that he doesn’t think he could have achieved otherwise and suggests that these insights weren’t solely his own but were instead the result of collaboration between two intelligences: his own, and the software’s artificial intelligence. 

(Shortform note: The continued advancement of artificial intelligence technology is further enhancing the technological collaboration that Johnson describes. Employers are encouraging workers to use artificial intelligence to not only access information but to use its suggestions for possible ways to apply that information. Additionally, while human intelligence continues to be the best source of creativity, artificial intelligence technology is also beginning to gain what some call “artificial imagination,” as AIs are being created that can generate unique images and text based on human input. Some have even suggested that we should begin crediting computers as inventors when they contribute to patentable innovations.)

Google can provide a similar collaborative search function to DEVONthink but with the added benefit of being able to draw from the entirety of the internet’s information. Johnson points to criticism of internet search engines by writers who suggest that it has ended the practice of going to the library, browsing the shelves, and pulling out books that interest you at a glance. However, Johnson points out that this wasn’t a practice that everyone—or even most people—made a habit of. While their searches are now curated by internet filters—which he says are actually beneficial since they block out all the irrelevant search results—more people are searching the internet than ever browsed libraries in the way these critics lament.

(Shortform note: In browsing a library, your interests and curiosities act as search result filters, but with internet searches, filters aren’t the only aspect of search engines that help curate your results. While a filter merely blocks out results that don’t fit your search criteria, search engine algorithms use a huge number of criteria to specifically seek out results that match not only your query, but also relate to other criteria including your search history, the reliability or authority of a site, and site traffic. However, some results may be boosted over others based on less relevant criteria—for instance, YouTube is given priority in Google searches over other results, which may be because YouTube is owned by Google.)

How to Cultivate Sudden Insights: Taking Advantage of Serendipity

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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, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks 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 book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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