How Great Ideas are Born

I found a new favorite podcast recently- The RSA describes itself as:

That sounds pretty snotty on some levels.  In actuality, the RSA basically started out as a get together of friends from different fields, sharing knowledge- People like Ben Franklin and Samuel Johnson hung out, exchanging ideas and taking advantage of the perspectives their friends and colleagues could add to their ideas.  Later fellows have included Alexander Graham Bell, Charles Dickens, David Attenborough and Stephen Hawking, so it’s an eclectic group to be sure.

I was listening to one of their programs featuring Stephen Johnson, exploring what the secrets were to innovation and great ideas.  Surprisingly enough, it often involves people getting together and mucking around with ideas, experimenting, remixing, collaborating and working together far more often than an individual insight isolated from a group.  Not surprisingly, this description of an idea and innovation hatchery reminds me very much of what we’ve created with Podcamp.  Podcamp of course, is the digital media unconference I’ve been involved with since I attended the first one in Boston five years ago.  It’s a place where I met many of my now closest friends and colleagues, and it’s been my RSA- a group of folks, changing and evolving that continuously pushes me to think harder, differently and explore things I might otherwise have left to the side.

One of Stephen Johnson’s premises in his talk is that good ideas and innovations in thinking often start out more like a good hunch- people then test it out over time, bounce it off of friends, gradually revise it, until the insight comes out, seemingly new and shiny, but actually as the result of a community of small insights, feedback and exploration of additional possibilities.

We all need this sense of community and people from diverse backgrounds to spark new ideas and creativity.  This is why in person gatherings are always more powerful, why I prefer voice over written communication frequently- the connections we make together, the small side statements that spark something new, the way someone tilts their head or uses a voice inflection that changes the meaning of their words entirely….

It’s also why I am so excited about things like differentiated instruction and project-based learning, because these forms of education push students to play and innovate and create new solutions to problems.  The crucible of the classroom is the base unit of innovation itself, where students first learn the joys of discovery and ideas.

As much as I love the web, and the ability to build relationships and share ideas with others independent of time and space, I am equally convinced that the time we need most in our lives are the in-person, casual conversation, discussions about work and play and where ideas can go next that lead to the innovations and leaps forward we all crave, much more so than slaving away each day solitary at our desks, with only our own minds to play with.  So the next time you are tempted to stay home from a tweetup or unconference or other event and watch TV instead, think about the opportunities to create as a community you might be missing, and whether or not you can really afford the opportunity cost associated with being lazy.

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