Our mattresses were made
of corn shucks
and soft gray Spanish moss
that hung from the trees….
From the swamps
we got soup turtles
and baby alligators
And from the woods
we got raccoon,
rabbit and possum.
• Mahalia Jackson, Movin’ On Up
Richard Wright, the bard of the Great Migration, defected to the receiving station of Chicago, via Memphis, in December, 1927, to feel as he put it, “the warmth of other suns.”
I’ve been thinking about Big books vs. small books.
I’m not talking about the size of the book — although, a big book is usually bigger — i.e., more pages. But not always: consider Big Think Strategy: How to leverage bold ideas and leave small thinking behind by Bernd H. Schmitt. This is a big book with fewer than 200 pages.
I’m talking about the ideas, the sweep of the book. And I am a big fan of big books. Books that tie things together over a long haul. Books that point me to connections that are important, connections that I have not thought of. Recently, at the First Friday Book Synopsis, I presented my synopsis of Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson. This is a big book, with a massive sweep. Other titles come to mind: Collapse by Jared Diamond; The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright.
Well, here’s my new “current favorite big book” — The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson. Wilkerson is a Pultizer Prize winner (in 1994: the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer in journalism) from her reporting days with the New York Times, and in this massive sweep of a book she tells the epic story of the Great Migration, the years from 1915 to 1970, when over six million African Americans left the American South for the North and West. It is a terrific read, overflowing with insight into people, this country, prejudices, hopes, dreams… I would like to suggest that you add it to your “serious non-fiction book” stack. You will not be disappointed.
Wilkerson follows the journey of three Southern blacks, each representing a different decade of the Great Migration as well as a different destination. It’s a shrewd storytelling device, because it allows her to highlight two issues often overlooked: first, that the exodus was a continuous phenomenon spanning six decades of American life; second, that it consisted of not one, but rather three geographical streams, the patterns determined by the train routes available to those bold enough to leave.
People from Arkansas, Alabama and Mississippi boarded the Illinois Central to Midwestern cities like Cleveland, Chicago and Detroit; those from Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia rode the Seaboard Air Line up the East Coast to Washington, Philadelphia and New York; those in Louisiana and Texas took the Union Pacific to Los Angeles, Oakland and other parts of the West Coast. Wilkerson is superb at minding the bends and detours along the way. She notes, for example, that some migrants, unfamiliar with the conductor’s Northern accent, would mistakenly get off at the cry of “Penn Station, Newark,” the stop just before Penn Station, New York. Many decided to stay put, she adds, giving Newark “a good portion of its black population.”
Here is just one paragraph – such a great excerpt:
The actions of the people in this book were both universal and distinctly American. Their migration was a response to an economic and social structure not of their making. They did what humans have done for centuries when life became untenable – what the pilgrims did under the tyranny of British rule, what the Scotch-Irish did in Oklahoma when the land turned to dust, what the Irish did when there was nothing to eat, what the European Jews did during the spread of Nazism, what the landless in Russia, Italy, China and elsewhere did when something better across the ocean called to them. What binds their stories together was the back-against-the-wall, reluctant yet hopeful search for something better, any place but where they were. They did what human beings looking for freedom, throughout history, have often done.
Wilkerson spent fourteen years researching this book (you can tell!), and interviewed over 1000 people. The poignant moments in this book are too numerous to mention. The description of the photograph of her own mother taken in the New World will leave a lump in your throat at the sheer symbolism of this new world “passport.” This is the kind of reading that I wish I had more time to do.
I hope you have your stack of serious, sweeping, big book books to read. They are rich indeed. Add this one to your stack – you will not be disappointed.
The first steps of a creative act are like groping in the dark: random and chaotic, feverish and fearful, a lot of busy-ness with no apparent or definable end in sight. There is nothing yet to research. For me, these moments are not pretty. I look like a desperate woman, tortured by the simple message thumping away in my head: “You need an idea.”
You need a tangible idea to get you going. The idea, however miniscule, is what turns the verb into a noun – paint into a painting, sculpt into sculpture, write into writing, dance into a dance.
Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit
I was just revisiting my handout from the book Where Good Ideas Come From. Steven Johnson argues that a lot goes into the discovery of those really good ideas. To get to “good idea, “ you have to: go with the “flow;” you have to have, and then jettison, a bunch of bad ideas; you have to learn to rely on hunches much more than those fast/sudden/amazing eureka moments (which, really, is not the secret sauce behind most good ideas); you have to come to realize that good hunches are slow in coming – -they are “slow hunches.”
You have to build, and take advantage of, an environment that nurtures good ideas:
This is a book about the space of innovation. Some environments squelch new ideas; some environments seem to breed them effortlessly.
Good ideas come from many places:
Good ideas are not conjured out of thin air; they are built out of a collection of existing parts, the composition of which expands (and occasionally, contracts) over time.
A good idea is a network… an idea is not a single thing. It is more like a swarm.
Good ideas come from people – notice that that is “people” (plural!):
The most productive tool for generating good ideas remains a circle of humans at a table, talking shop.
And, remember, that creativity, and then innovation, are the result of good ideas. Johnson’s decision to talk about good ideas was significant:
I have deliberately chosen the broadest possible phrasing – good ideas – to suggest the cross-disciplinary vantage point I am trying to occupy.
So…pretend that you have a group of people who have nurtured the idea generation skill that is needed. You come together to work on generating new, good, usable ideas.
What do you do?
You have some brainstorming sessions. And then, you have the chance of sparking/catching those good ideas. You are looking for that someone in that crowd that can help you come up with just the right next new idea:
This is not the wisdom of the crowd, but the wisdom of someone in the crowd. It’s not that the network itself is smart; it’s that the individuals get smarter because they’re connected to the network.
So, what do you in this brainstorming session? You brainstorm. But, we all know, brainstorming done poorly does not work.
Here is some genuinely important “how to brainstorm well” counsel from The Art of Innovation (Lessons in Creativity from IDEO, America’s Leading Design Firm) by Tom Kelley.
• Seven Secrets for Better Brainstorming…
1) Sharpen the focus.
2) Playful Rules. (e.g. – at IDEO: Go for quantity. Encourage wild ideas. Be visual).
1. Number your ideas. (it creates quantity – it makes it easier to refer to specific ideas…)
2. Build and Jump.
3. The Space Remembers.
4. Stretch your mental muscles.
5. Get physical. (including: big blocks; competitors products; use the body itself!)
• Six ways to kill a brainstormer…
The boss gets to speak first (the boss gets to speak!)
Everybody gets a turn.
Experts only please.
Do it off-site.
No silly stuff.
Write down everything.
And, like with every other skill that you develop, you’ll have to do it a bunch — practice brainstorming, that is. Remember the tried and true adage: “perfect practice makes perfect.”
So, what do we do when the wisdom sounds so right, so obvious – but may be wrong?
I am a big fan of Jason Fried. I have presented a synopsis of his book (co-authored with David Heinemeier Hansson), Rework. I have blogged about his ideas, quoting him, reflecting on his ideas a number of times. And I like his writing style, and think he is right.
Except… what if he is wrong?
Here are excerpts from his latest (special for CNN – read it here):
The modern office has become an interruption factory. You can’t get work done at work anymore.
When people walk into the office, they trade their work day in for a series of work moments. It’s like the front door is a “time Cuisinart” — shredding it all into little bits.
When you’re in the office you’re lucky to have 30 minutes to yourself. Usually you get in, there’s a meeting, then there’s a call, then someone calls you over to their desk, or your manager comes over to see what you’re doing. These interruptions chunk your day into smaller and smaller bits. Fifteen minutes here, 30 minutes there, another 15 minutes before lunch, then an afternoon meeting, etc. When are you supposed to get work done if you don’t have any time to work?
People — especially creative people — need long stretches of uninterrupted time to get things done. Fifteen minutes isn’t enough. Thirty minutes isn’t enough. Even an hour isn’t enough.
If I had read this a month ago, I would have said something like: “Amen! ~ Preach it, brother!,” or words to that effect. But, now, I’m not so sure. Because I have just read Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson. And that book is filled with story after story about the creative/innovative energy that is created by folks interacting constantly. It praises the conference table, and the design of buildings that are intended to enable/encourage constant, “accidental” and “on-purpose” interaction. “Interruption,” if you will.. Consider this quote from Johnson’s book:
The ground zero of innovation was not the microscope. It was the conference table… The most productive tool for generating good ideas remains a circle of humans at a table, talking shop.
So – who is right? Jason Fried or Steven Johnson?
Maybe both… but, maybe, if we follow Fried too closely, we might lose out. Having just finished Johnson’s book, I suspect that Fried’s counsel would have some anti-innovation unintended consequences. At least, that’s what I think this week.
So – what about all of those interruptions. Some of them are good, and feed the idea factory. Others? Well, maybe we just need to put up a sign that says “I’m in the alone zone – check with me later” an hour or two a day at work. (“Alone zone” is one of Fried’s phrases, by the way).
Last Friday, we ended 2010 at the First Friday Book Synopsis with synopses of Doing Both by Inder Sidhu and Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson. Attendance was terrific. And special thanks to Cathy Groos for filling in for Karl Krayer. (Cathy presented the synopsis of Doing Both).
As we near the completion of twelve complete years of the First Friday Book Synopsis, we begin 2011 with our January 7 meeting.
Karl Krayer will present the synopsis of buy*in — saving your good idea from getting shot down by John P. Kotter.
I (Randy Mayeux) will present the synopsis of Power: Why Some People Have It and Others Don’t by Jeffrey Pfeffer.
If you are near the DFW area on January 7, come join us!
Steven Johnson is the author of “Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History Of Innovation” my selection for the December First Friday Book Synopsis. This is an important book. Recently, Johnson wrote this article on the Huffington Post: Steven Johnson’s ‘Where Good Ideas Come From’: 6 Brilliant, World-Changing Mistakes. It includes some photos, with details, so click though to take a look. Here is his introduction to his specific examples:
For the past four years, I’ve been investigating the history of great ideas: the scientific, technological, and creative breakthroughs that have come to define the modern world — and the environments that made them possible. That research led me to my new book, “Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History Of Innovation,” but along the way, it also led me to a surprising discovery about the minds and workspaces that generated some of history’s great innovations: they were remarkably error-prone.
“In all probability,” British Economist William Stanley Jevons wrote in 1874, “the errors of the great mind exceed in number those of the less vigorous one.” Making mistakes turns out to be a strangely generative process: it sends you down a new path, allows an interesting new connection to form in your mind. The history of being spectacularly right has a shadow history lurking behind it: a much longer history of being spectacularly wrong, again and again. (For a rich philosophical take on this subject, I recommend Kathryn Schulz’s book, “Being Wrong.”) And not just wrong, but messy. A shockingly large number of transformative ideas in the annals of science can be attributed to contaminated laboratory environments. Great scientists and inventors seem to have an openness to the serendipitous discoveries that happen when you accidentally knock over the tissue sample, or misinterpret the data from the last experiment. As one great inventor, Ben Franklin, put it: “Truth is uniform and narrow; it constantly exists, and does not seem to require so much an active energy, as a passive aptitude of soul in order to encounter it. But error is endlessly diversified.”
Take a look at his specific examples — In that spirit, a short tour of some of history’s most brilliant and world-changing mistakes (click here):