Sometimes life provides happy surprises. I contacted Steven Johnson this summer asking for a blurb for the new edition of The Myths of Innovation – I knew he was a fan of my book from years ago. He provided the blurb, which was great, but the surprise was, after a brief conversation, he asked me to read a late draft of his latest book and give some feedback. An honor indeed, so I said yes. And this brief review is based on that version.
I’ve read dozens and dozens of books on innovation. People send them to me often or ask for blurbs, and as you might guess, there is a kind of innovation fatigue: there’s only so many things to say and so many ways to say them, and the more you read on a subject, the less surprises you expect to find. I didn’t start reading WGICF with particular enthusiasm for the topic for this reason, other than for the fact I had the honor of a preview from the author and a chance to give feedback.
The refreshing surprise is how well Johnson writes. Early on he shows his talent for finding interesting angles on old stories, and his opening chapter about Darwin is both compelling and novel. Unlike The Myths of Innovation, where I used the truth about great stories to teach skills applicable in life, WGICF runs on a different balance – it’s more about science than business, and the stories hunt ways to think about ideas, rather than to generate or apply specific ones in the world. One of WGICF’s strongest themes is comparing ecosystems for how life develops, with the organic nature of how ideas develop, a fascinating comparison on many levels, and one my hero Loren Eisley would surely be fond of.
The sub-title is exceptionally precise (most sub-titles read like afterthoughts pushed by the marketing committee), and almost makes for a better title for the book: the natural history of innovation. Nature, science and history are main characters here. The book is a narrative through ways of thinking about how ideas, and the natural systems that generate them, can be categorized and understood (The adjacent possible giving a name to something I’ve thought about for some time). It’s a fresh, wonderfully written book that, to my surprise, I greatly enjoyed. I didn’t agree with all of Johnson’s conclusions, but where we disagree challenged me to think hard about why, and that’s part of the gift of an excellent book.