Friends often ask me how long it takes to write one of my web articles. I can frame the question narrowly or broadly. In the narrow frame, the answer might be 90 minutes or so. In the broad frame, it might be 30 years or so. Talk about a slow hunch.
I’ll illustrate with my most recent article: Hate, Happiness, Imagination. As with many things – especially innovations – the article is a mashup of several different sources and concepts. Let’s track them in chronological order.
The first idea came to me through Graham Greene’s brilliant novel, The Power and the Glory. The novel includes a lovely quote: “Hate is the failure of imagination”. Greene wrote the novel in 1940, so the idea is now at least 75 years old (or perhaps older since Greene seems to echo previous authors).
I read the novel when Suellen and I lived in Guanajuato, Mexico in 1980. The quote about hate and imagination struck me and has stuck with me ever since. So, I’ve been gestating the idea for 35 years. I would occasionally mention it to friends but, otherwise, I didn’t do much with it.
In 2005, David Foster Wallace gave his famous commencement speech at Kenyon College. He stressed that, all too often, we fail to imagine what life is like for other people. If we did use our imagination more fully, we would empathize more, and our lives would be richer and fuller. First, we have to recognize that we can make a choice — that we don’t have to operate on our egocentric default setting. Second, we actually have to make the choice.
I didn’t know about Wallace’s speech until I started teaching critical thinking. As I looked for sources, I came across a video of the (abridged) speech and used it several times in my class. I first stumbled across it in 2012.
I didn’t do much with the Kenyon College speech until a few weeks ago. Frankly, I had forgotten about it. Then one of my students discovered it and asked me to show it to the class. That led to a very healthy discussion during which I connected what Wallace said to what Greene wrote.
Bingo! I made the connection between the two ideas. Why did it take me so long? Probably because I was just thinking about it. Thinking is fine but I don’t think that merely thinking creates many new ideas. The give-and-take of the class discussion stimulated me to make new connections. The diversity of opinions helped me open up new connections rather than merely deepening old connections.
Still, I didn’t have a complete thought. Then Suellen read me a paragraph from a review of the new biography of Saul Bellow. The review mentioned Bellow’s belief that imagination is “eternal naïveté”. When I realized what he meant by that, it dawned on me that it completed the thought. Greene connected to Wallace connected to Bellow.
What can we learn from this? First, this little story illustrates Steven Johnson’s idea of the “slow hunch”. Many good ideas – and most innovations – result from mashing up existing ideas. Unfortunately, we don’t get those ideas simultaneously. We may get one in 1980, another in 2012, and another last month. The trick is to remember the first one long enough to couple it with the second one. (Writing a blog helps).
The other point is that the pure act of thinking is (often) not enough. We need to kick ideas around with other people. Diversity counts. I’m lucky that I can kick ideas around with my students. And with Suellen. If not for them, I wouldn’t be nearly as interesting as I am.
So, how long does it take me to have a good idea? About 35 years.
What would happen if we mashed up Super Sad True Love Story and A Clockwork Orange?
Published in 1962, A Clockwork Orange was set in the not-so-distant future when a gang composed of Alex and his droogs (friends) could wreak ultra-violence all about them. Super Sad True Love Story, published in 2010, was set in a “near-future dystopian New York … dominated by media and retail.” Could they be the same story?
I read A Clockwork Orange in college and re-read it last year when the 50th anniversary edition came out (with the missing last chapter). The author, Anthony Burgess, worried that a novel about the future would age badly if he used contemporary language. Just imagine reading about mods and rockers flipping you the bird while shouting, Climb it, Tarzan. It’s so 60’s
So Burgess famously invented a language – called Nadsat – that included roughly 600 words derived from Russian. Droogs are friends, a britva is a blade or razor, chepooka is nonsense, devotchka is a girl, polezny is useful, rot is a mouth, zheena is a wife, and horrorshow is cool, great, or super. It takes a little while to get used to Nadsat but, once you do, it flows easily.
I re-read A Clockwork Orange because I wanted to see how it had held up. Did Burgess’s trick work? Did Nadsat still sound futuristic? I have to say that it did; it still seemed to be a future language in an undefined but somewhat familiar landscape.
While the language held up, everything else seemed so 60’s. At one point, Alex and his droogs invade a house where an author has nearly finished typing a novel (called A Clockwork Orange). The gang seizes the typescript and shreds it in front of the author. It’s the only copy. The work is forever lost. But wait … a typewriter in the not-so-distant future? How lame is that? The language worked but the technology forecast didn’t.
Gary Shteyngart, the author of Super Sad True Love Story, may have the opposite problem, which is why a mash-up might work. I got to thinking of this when I read Shteyngart’s article, “O.K., Glass” in a recent issue of The New Yorker. The article recounts Shteyngart’s adventures as he wanders around New York wearing Google Glasses. (Shteyngart is one of the Google Glass Explorers, who are sometimes known as Glassholes).
Shteyngart uses his Glass experience to ruminate on Super Sad True Love Story. He notes, for instance that he set the novel in the near future because “…setting [it] in the present in a time of unprecedented technological and social dislocation seemed … shortsighted.”
Shteyngart is addressing the same problem as Burgess: how do you keep a novel fresh? Burgess approached it through language, Shteyngart through technology.
As Shteyngart admits, he didn’t solve the problem of predicting the far future. A lot of what he wrote has already come to pass. He writes that he feels like a “…very limited Nostradamus, the Nostradamus of two weeks from now.”
Still, I submit that Shteyngart did a better job on future technology than Burgess, while Burgess did a better job on future language. That’s why I’m proposing a mashup. Burgess died in 1993 so any mashup will have to come from Shteyngart. Plus, Shteyngart was born in Russia so Nadsat should be a snap for him. So what do you say, Gary? Would you give us a mashup of two great novels? It would be totally horrorshow.
I used to be a book monogamist. I would start a book and read it — forsaking all others — until completion did us part. Then I would find another book and start the process over again. You could say that I was a serial monogamist.
Now I’m a book polygamist. Rather then reading an entire book from start to finish, I read randomly selected chapters in more-or-less randomly selected titles. I’ll read a chapter in Book A, followed by a chapter in Book B, followed by a chapter in Book X (ooh!), followed by Book D, and then back to Book A. I started doing this because I’ve read about the mashup theory of innovation, which suggests that innovations are frequently a mashup of two (or more) existing ideas. You mash up a Broadway play with a circus and get — voilá — Cirque de Soleil. Mash up a sports car and a sedan and you get – hier ist — a BMW.
Since most books really only have one idea (if that), I thought it would be useful to mash up ideas from multiple books at the same time. What do I have to show for my efforts? Well, I’m probably one of the few writers to mash up the Global Innovation Index with the World Happiness Report (click here). I’m about to mash up those two with measures of national cultural dimensions. I’ve also discovered that countries become more egalitarian (as measured by the power distance index) the farther north you go. I’d like to mash that up with another little-known fact — the incidence of multiple sclerosis increases the farther north you go. I’m not sure what egalitarianism has to do with MS but, at the very least, it’s an interesting question to ask.
At the moment, I’m reading The Big Sort and The Big Short more or less simultaneously. Given their titles, the two books seemed just perfect for mashing up. The Big Sort is subtitled, Why The Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart. The basic idea is that we have sorted ourselves into homogeneous thought clusters. As the author points out, “The result is a country that has become so polarized, so ideologically inbred that people don’t know and can’t understand those who live a few miles away.” (For my previous article on The Big Sort, click here).
The Big Short, subtitled Inside The Doomsday Machine, tells the story of how a few people made bazillions of dollars by recognizing the mortgage bubble and betting against it. Of course, the mortgage bubble also triggered the biggest financial crisis since the Depression. Both books tell fascinating stories about modern America. By reading them together, I’m trying to mash them up. Could it be that thought clusters led to the doomsday machine? By separating ourselves into “ideologically inbred” clusters, did we help establish the conditions that produced a massive bubble? I’m still trying to tease the two together but, if nothing else, it’s another interesting question to ask.
I once took a course called Comparative Literature. Among other things, we compared the epic Spanish poem The Cid with Albert Camus’ The Stranger. We found surprising parallels in plot, structure, and description. What I’m doing now is really not that different. It’s a surprisingly good (and easy) way to come up with interesting insights. So, what do you think? What books would you like to see mashed up?
Do you forget stuff? Yeah, me too. It makes it harder to be innovative.
The trouble is that innovative ideas don’t come all polished up and wrapped in a pretty bundle. When a creative person describes her process, it may seem that innovative new ideas arrive in a flash of insight. That’s a nice way to tell a story but it’s not really the way it happens.
In truth, innovation is more like building a puzzle — when you don’t know what the finished piece is supposed to look like. You collect a piece here and a piece there. Perhaps, by putting them together, you create another piece. Then, a random interaction with a colleague supplies another piece — which is why random interactions are so important.
Each piece of the puzzle is a “slow hunch” in Steven Johnson’s phrase. You create a piece of an idea and it hangs around for a while. Some time later — perhaps many years later — you find another idea that just happens to complete the original idea. It works great if, and only if, you remember the original idea.
In previous posts on mashup thinking, I may have implied that you simply take two ideas that occur more or simultaneously and stick them together. But look a little closer. One of my favorite mashup examples is DJ Danger Mouse, who took the Beatle’s White Album and mashed it up with Jay Z’s Black Album to create the Grey Album, one of the big hits of 2004. But how long was it between the White Album and the Black Album? Well, at least a generation. I remember the White Album but not the Black Album. I think our son is probably the reverse. Neither one of us could complete the idea. DJ Danger Mouse’s originality comes from his memory. He remembered a “slow hunch” — the White Album — and mashed it into something contemporary.
So, how do you remember slow hunches? By writing them down. In fact, that’s one of the reasons I started this blog — so I won’t forget good ideas. I can now go back and search for ideas that I thought were important several years ago. I can recall them, put them together with new hunches, and perhaps create new ideas.
I like to read widely. I’m hoping that ideas — both old and new — will collide more or less randomly to create new ideas. Unfortunately, I often forget what I read. With this blog, I now have a place store slow hunches. And, since it’s public, I’m hoping that you’ll help me complete the cycle. Let’s get your random ideas colliding with my random ideas. That will help us both remember, put our hunches together, and come up with bright new ideas. Sounds like a plan. Now we just need to remember to stick with it.