In Support of the Polymath: How We Got To Now.
Updated: May 6, 2019
Johnson, Steven (2014). How We Got to Now: Six Innovations that Made the Modern World. Riverhead Books: New York City, NY. Available at https://amzn.to/2X24Sr6
How many fields or disciplines do you study? How diverse are your skills and interests?
The polymath is a person of wide-ranging knowledge or learning. Johnson’s book encourages us to all be polymaths: to broaden our depth and breadth of knowledge, for invention is born at the crossroads of disciplines. I love this concept, not only because it justifies my own “jack-of-all-trades” mentality and eclectic assortment of hobbies, but because it rings true in the modern workplace and in life. The more skills and interests you have, the more versatile, resilient, and fulfilled you can be in your career and in life – as you will never stop learning and growing.
I listened to Johnson’s book as an audiobook and found it highly entertaining, informative, and motivating. He discusses inventions including glass, air-conditioning, the pendulum clock, the ability to provide clean water to people, and audio recordings, amongst other things. He explores how these inventions, over time, resulted in major widespread systemic changes in human society and behavior.
For example, the first chapter is devoted to glass. When it was first discovered, glass pieces were used as ornaments or jewelry. Later, when we learned how to manipulate and clarify it, glass changed our architecture, allowing us to see outdoors (windows). The author discusses the island of Murano in Italy, and how exiling Venetian artists to the island sparked a creative community where innovation and creativity was shared, spurring more and more innovations in glass-making. The rise of the printing press and spread of the practice of reading and writing made people realize they were far-sighted, creating a need to see better. This need + glass resulted in the invention of spectacles.
After spectacles, folks started making lenses to examine the world more closely. We invented microscopes that allowed us to discover the inner workings of the human body, as we discovered the cell. We were also then able to make advancements in health and sanitation as we discovered bacteria and germs. Later, the manipulation of lenses allowed us to understand our place in the universe – to discover that the earth circumambulates the sun, and that our galaxy is one of many. Ultimately, glass both allowed us to peer inside the inner workings of the world and to time travel, as we learned that the stars we gaze on at night actually burned out long ago.
Perhaps most interestingly, Johnson' demonstrates that there are patterns in innovation. These patterns become visible when historical events are examined over time and in the context of the trajectory of mankind throughout the world. By taking a “long view” of history, Johnson demonstrates how most human inventions are created within the realm of what he calls the “adjacent possible,” and how most inventions are not derived from “eureka!” moments of genius, but rather, simultaneously conceived in multiple versions by many people. He demonstrates this by documenting the history of the invention of the lightbulb – listing out dozens of men that invented lightbulbs in the late 1800’s in France, Russia, the United States, England, and elsewhere.
“The lightbulb was the product of networked innovation, and so it is probably fitting that the reality of the electric light ultimately turned out to be more of a network or a system than a single entity. The true victory lap for Edison didn’t come with that bamboo filament glowing in a vacuum, it came with the lighting of the Pearl Street district two years later. To make that happen, you needed to invent lightbulbs, yes. But you also needed a reliable source of electric current, a system for distributing that current through a neighborhood, a mechanism for connecting individual lightbulbs to the grid, and a meter to gauge how much electricity each household was using. A lightbulb on its own is a curiosity piece…what Edison and the Mockers created was much bigger than that: a network of multiple innovations all linked together to make the magic of electric light safe and affordable.”
After demonstrating that invention is often not an isolated, unique, or spontaneous process, however; towards the end of the book, Johnson turns this truism on its head by presenting the story of Ada Lovelace. Ada Lovelace, daughter of the famous poet Lord Byron, was truly a visionary. Ada was a mathematician and writer, and worked with Charles Babbage on his “Analytical Machine.” Ada was the first person to recognize that a machine could have applications beyond pure calculation. She died in 1852 of uterine cancer, but at her death at age 36, she had already essentially invented the first prototype of a computer – hundreds of years before the rest of the world was ready to imagine this concept. In a sense, then, Johnson calls Ada and Babbage “time-travelers”: those with the imagination and gumption to create something truly visionary.
Great innovators work at the edge of their fields, the boundaries of their expertise. “To a certain extent, the time-travelers remind us that working within an established field is both empowering and restricting at the same time. Stay within the boundaries of your discipline, and you will have an easier time making incremental improvements. Opening the doors of the adjacent possible that are directly available to you, given the specifics of the historical moment… but those disciplinary boundaries can also serve as blinders, keeping you from the bigger idea that becomes visible only when you cross those borders. Sometimes those borders are literal: geographic… Sometimes the boundaries are conceptual… The time-travelers tend, as a group, to have a lot of hobbies. Think of Darwin and his orchids… The time-travelers are unusually adept at intercrossing different fields of expertise. That’s the beauty of the hobbyist. It’s generally easier to mix different intellectual fields when you have a whole array of them littering your study, or your garage.”
“One of the reasons garages have become such an emblem of the innovator’s workspace is precisely because they exist outside the traditional spaces of work or research. They are not office cubicles, or university labs. They are places away from work and school. Places where our peripheral interests have the room to grow and evolve. Experts head off to their corner offices and lecture halls. The garage is the space for the hacker, the tinkerer, the maker. The garage is not defined by a single field or industry; instead, it is defined by the eclectic interests of its inhabitants. It is a space where intellectual networks converge.”
In grand conclusion, Johnson critiques Steve Jobs’ famous commencement speech. Jobs talks about how he was forced out of Apple at the age of 30 and created Pixar, and how this experience gave him a sense of lightness, of being a beginner again. It freed him to enter one of the most creative periods of his life. “Yet there is a strange irony at the end of Jobs’ speech. After documenting the ways that unlikely collisions and explorations can liberate the mind, he ended with a more sentimental appeal to be ‘true to yourself,’ and, most importantly, to ‘have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.’ If there’s anything we know from the history of innovation, and particularly from the history of the time-travelers, it is that being true to yourself is not enough. Certainly you don’t want to be trapped by orthodoxy and conventional wisdom. Certainly the innovators profiled in this book had the tenacity to stick with their hunches for long periods of time. But there is comparable risk in being true to your own sense of identity, your own roots. Better to challenge those intuitions, explore uncharted terrain…better to make new connections than remain comfortably situated in the same routine.”
Ultimately, “if you want to be like Ada, if you want to have an intuitive perception of hidden things, well. In that case, you need to get a little lost.”