Ideas produce more ideas

If you want to be where you can come up with creative ideas, go there.

Try this experiment with a friend or co-worker, it should only take five or so minutes to get the point across.

Tell them that they have just traveled back in time 100 years. How they did it is not in question here. They’ve been tasked with telling you – a historically famous painter or inventor or something – about something from the present time, like the iPhone, or the Internet, eBooks, taking educational courses online, iMAX, or the McRib sandwich.

They can pick which item they’re describing or you can come up with it together, the only requirements are that it has to be a fairly recent technology or concept from the current year (2013 as of this writing) and they have to try their best to describe it to you so that you completely understand it.

The problem, if you haven’t figured it out yet, is that nearly any technology or concept we have today that is fairly new simply couldn’t have existed 100 years ago. It was impossible.

Maybe your friend can successfully describe the thing to you, but to re-create it would be absolutely impossible.


Take the iPhone for example. In order for an iPhone to exist you need a lot of adjacent technologies and ideas to also exist. Touch screen technology, incredibly small batteries, durable glass cut to the perfect shape, and a thousand other small inventions that didn’t exist 100 years ago. Then, for almost each of those objects you’d need a dozen other technologies to exist as well.

The concept is beautifully described by Kevin Kelly in his article: Bootstrapping the Industrial Age, where he describes the process of creating a single web page today:

A web page relies on perhaps a hundred thousand other inventions, all needed for its birth and continued existence. There is no web page anywhere without the inventions of HTML code, without computer programming, without LEDs or cathode ray tubes, without solid state computer chips, without telephone lines, without long-distance signal repeaters, without electrical generators, without high-speed turbines, without stainless steel, iron smelters, and control of fire. None of these concrete inventions would exist without the elemental inventions of writing, of an alphabet, of hypertext links, of indexes, catalogs, archives, libraries and the scientific method itself. To recapitulate a web page you have to recreate all these other functions. You might as well remake modern society.

So what’s this have to do with creativity and ideation?

The reason so many good ideas come about is not because the person who came up with them was generally more intelligent or held otherworldly insights. No, the reason is simply known as the Adjacent Possible.

Stuart Kauffman originally coined the term to describe nature’s natural process of ordered evolution.

The idea goes well beyond organic chemistry though, as you can see by the experiment that started off this article.

Good ideas – really grand ideas, for whatever it is your passion is – do not come from thin air. They come from the constant combinatorial editing writers and curators do, they come from the room full of props and garbaged projects of an artist, and they come from a room full of interesting people all talking about the (small) interesting things they are doing.

To have good ideas is to surround yourself with possibilities, then experimenting to see which of those ideas can produce a new, functional one.

Photo by Moyan Brenn.