Where do our thoughts come from? We are often led to believe that many of the great ideas of the past have come as flashes of inspiration. We have the picture of Archimedes leaping from his bath shouting ‘Eureka’ when he realised that objects displace water and Sir Isaac Newton sitting under a tree and watching apples fall and coming up with his ideas about gravitation. Steven Johnson in his book, ‘Where Do Good Ideas Come From?’ suggests that breakthrough ideas rarely come from flashes of inspiration. Instead, he argues, good ideas come about through a collision of smaller hunches. “Ideas need time to incubate. Hunches need to collide, often it needs a hunch in one person’s mind to collide with another hunch in someone else’s mind. How can you create systems that allow those hunches to come together? So that they become something bigger than the sum of their parts.”
He argues that in the past coffee houses were such places where people met, talked and shared ideas and ‘hunches. The same is not true of today. While we do have a growing coffee-house culture it is one that is often inhabited by people on their own, either reading, writing or surfing the Internet. Don’t get me wrong, as someone who does just this on a regular basis, there is nothing wrong with this. In fact the coffee-house or coffee shop is an ideal place for writers and thinkers, a place where they can relax and dream. But what do you then do with those dreams?
Opportunities for conversations sometimes seem limited. I certainly found this to be true in the workplace, where time was often spent at meetings listening to other people. Life was, and still is, so busy that people didn’t have time to reflect and chat with one another. There were never times to share ideas, build on someone else’s hunch and then come back together again to discuss progress and fresh ideas.
We live in a much more highly connected world. Our technology today allows us to share thoughts, ideas with anyone, anywhere in the world. This blog, for example, gives me the opportunity to potentially share my thoughts with the world. The trouble is that our great technological means of being able to be connected today can, at times, be quite superficial. My thoughts might be read by another blogger who might or might not make a connection through adding a comment, but it rarely goes beyond that point. If you look at how people connect with one another nowadays it seems to be through short text messages or low-level chit-chat on Facebook. When do people have long, meaningful conversations with one another?
Many years ago I read a book called, ‘The World Cafe’ that aimed to encourage more people to get together and have conversations that could shape our futures – conversations that matter. I will leave this post with two quotes from that book,
Are we as human beings so immersed in conversation that, like fish in water, conversation is our medium for survival and we just can’t see it?
Conversation is the heart of the new inquiry. It is perhaps the core human capacity for dealing with the tremendous challenges we face. To engage in great civilization we need to ask questions that matter. We can’t afford to spend our time on issues that can’t hold our attention, that don’t touch our hearts. The culture of conversation is a different culture, one that could make a difference in the future of our world.