How We Got To Now Summary

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 How We Got To Now explores the history of innovation, how innovations connect to one another, create an environment for change and where innovations come from.

Steven Johnson is a popular science author, who’s written 10 books on topics like innovation, cognitive science and even video games, as well as host of the TV show of the same name as this book “How We Got to Know,” which explores the history of innovations, how different innovations link to one another, and what the conditions are for us to create more of it.

It’s often very hard to pinpoint the causes of huge innovations, like the internet, because they develop over a long time, with lots of input factors, like societal conditions, technological progress and of course the right person tinkering with the right thing at the right time.

Thanks to Steven Johnson, you can get a clearer picture of how we’ve arrived in our 21st century world, as well as learn how you can better understand other innovations in the future.

Here are my 3 main takeaways from this book:

Innovations can create an environment for more change, rather than just a change on their own.

One innovation can act as a springboard for another, unexpected one, and even change the legal situation.

Some innovations highly depend on the person creating them and their rich background.

Would you like to pull back the curtain and take a look at the inner workings of innovation? Let’s give it up for Steven Johnson!

Lesson 1: Sometimes innovations don’t directly cause change, but create the right environment for it.

The Renaissance was one of the most innovative periods in history. Lasting from roughly the 14th to the 17th century, the density of innovations and technologies that allowed society to progress hasn’t been as big again until 300 years later. Gunpowder, glasses, the printing press, the flush toilet, the microscope, the telescope, the submarine, matches, that’s just a tiny selection of its accomplishments.

One thing you probably wouldn’t think of as a crucial innovation in this era, or a crucial innovation at all for that matter, is the mirror. Yet, without the mirror, we probably wouldn’t have had a Renaissance in the first place.

In the 1400s, glassblowing first came about, which made it easier to create glass mirrors at scale (though they were still very expensive). Before the mirror, people couldn’t look at themselves. Imagine the feeling you’d get if you first looked at a mirror when you’re 21.

The Renaissance was a period of introspection and self-awareness. People started to think and look inward. Self-portraits first came up, as did novels written in the first person. None of this would have been possible without people being able to look at themselves and start reflecting.

In this way, the mirror didn’t exactly cause the renaissance, but it’s impossible to imagine without it – because it created the right environment for this change.

Lesson 2: Innovations can lead to other, unexpected innovations, and even cause laws to change.

Sometimes, however, an innovation is of course directly responsible for a huge change. Like the light bulb, for example. Before artificial light, there were only candles. But they were expensive to make. Guess what they were made of.

The stuff that’s in a sperm whale’s head. It’s called spermaceti and the only way to get it is, you guessed it, to hunt and kill whales, which is both a terrible and expensive endeavor. Luckily, Thomas Edison broke through before they went extinct, and gave people sustainable light whenever they wanted it.

The light bulb acted as a springboard for huge further innovations, that built upon it. Flash photography, for example. First tested by Charles Smyth in the late 1800s by creating a mini-explosion to illuminate the King’s Chamber inside the Pyramids of Giza and take a picture, it was later used by Jacob Riis to document the horrible living conditions in a New York neighborhood called Five Points.

Being visualized for the first time, the images garnered huge support for a new law to be passed, which effectively eliminated those conditions and greatly improved the situation.

And that’s how one innovation can lead to another, and another, and another, and eventually even change things on a governmental level!

Lesson 3: Not all innovations are inevitable, some are very personal.

In case of the light bulb, it’s actually not that self-evident that we think of Thomas Edison as the inventor. Around 20 people came up with very similar concepts and working prototypes at almost the same time, Edison was just the one to popularize it the fastest.

That means first, the desire to replace the candle was global, not just local and second the level of knowledge around the world was up to the challenge of creating something that did it.

This kind of innovation is different from one that seems to come out of the blue and is really the effort of a single individual. Like when Ada Lovelace wrote the first computer algorithm – in the 1840s. Charged with the task to translate a paper from French to English, she added notes to it, coming up with a step-by-step program to compute Bernoulli numbers, thus writing the first working piece of “software” ever.

Unlike the light bulb, this wasn’t an urgent problem and nobody was working on this. It was much rather the result of her looking at math from a poetic angle, because she’d been educated in both fields and thus a heavily personally influenced innovation.

As you can see, there are many ways to change the world and it doesn’t matter whether you’re part of a huge team or work alone 🙂

My personal take-aways

What really makes this book come to life is the vast number of examples it sheds a light on. Innovation is a complex, tricky process, and not easy to describe in a few words, but this makes it a lot of fun to learn about it!

Creativity, Inc. Summary

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Creativity, Inc. is an instruction manual for instilling inspiration into employees, managers and bosses, by revealing the hidden forces that get in the way, based on over 30 years of experience of the president of Pixar, Ed Catmull.

How do you keep coming up with fun, creative, inspiring movies for children for 30 years? Have you thought about that? Every few years Pixar comes up with a new, groundbreaking movie that lights up our hearts and happiness centers in the brain.

Remember Toy Story? That was 1995. A Bug’s Life? 1998. Finding Nemo came out in 2003. Wall-E was 2008. And, most recently, Inside Out in 2015.

Most of the studios feature films have become absolute smash hits. When it comes to answering how they do it, many point to Pixar’s president of 30 years, Ed Catmull. In this 2014 book, which he wrote with the help of freelance writer Amy Wallace, he lays out Pixar’s creative processes with an all-access, behind-the-scenes tour of the company.

Originally he was hired as the head of the new Graphics Group, which was founded as part of Lucasfilm’s computer division in 1979. Ed Catmull stayed on as president, together with 40 employees, when George Lucas decided to spin off the group as its own company, in order to protect it from declining Star Wars revenues and keep it profitable until computers would have enough power to create fully animated films, in 1986.

The only outside investor and majority shareholder was Steve Jobs, who invested $10 million into the company – the investment that made him a billionaire.

Now, without further ado, here are 3 lessons from Creativity, Inc.:

Having a good team is more important than having a good idea.

Never blame failures on single people, always hold the entire team responsible.

Encourage employees to decorate their own workspaces.

Creativity, here we come!

Lesson 1: Great teams are more important than great ideas.

One of the most popular and insightful quotes from the book is this one:

“If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up. If you give a mediocre idea to a brilliant team, they will either fix it or throw it away and come up with something better.”

It’s one of those things that you’d never think of instinctively, but once you read it, you know it’s true. As long as you manage to hire talented people, who work together well and communicate freely, the ideas aren’t as important.

Imagine the character designers, storyboard writers or animators that were part of the Toy Story team had been mediocre at their job. We might never have seen a heartbroken Buzz Lightyear, who finds out he’s “just” a toy and not a real space ranger, a dramatic rescue mission to save him from the gruel hands of Sid, or a beautifully animated potato head.

Hire inspired people, then give them good ideas. Never try to do it the other way around.

Lesson 2: Mistakes are always made by teams, never by individuals. Everyone is equally responsible.

Instead of being surprised by failure when it happens, the people at Pixar acknowledge it up front. They greet it right at the door. By accepting that mistakes are just part of the deal, they can design their processes to be iterative, meaning they can weed out the mistakes they find with the next project and not repeat them again, and don’t have to obsess over correcting them with the current project.

In the same vein, at Pixar mistakes are never made by individuals, only by teams. When failure happens, the entire team is responsible, and no finger is pointed at anyone in particular.

What this failure-sharing mentality leads to is that employees feel much safer in taking risks, because no one ever has to take 100% of the blame. It feels so much better to know that a major screw-up will be divided equally among five people than thinking you might be fired because of one, stupid mistake.

Another way Pixar does this is by giving people more time to explore and correct during the development stage of a film, where mistakes aren’t as costly as in actual production.

In Ed’s words:

“It’s not the manager’s job to prevent risks. It’s the manager’s job to make it safe for others to take them.”

Failure-sharing is exactly that. Only when everyone feels safe to take risks do you have an environment where everyone can have the courage to be creative.

Lesson 3: Let everyone design their own workspace to keep boredom out of your building.

While you should greet failure at the door, there’s one thing you should definitely hand over before you enter your building, and that’s boredom.

Imagine working for a marketing agency, startup or entertainment company, where all success depends on creativity, and then having to work in one of 137 identical, lame, cold, sterile cubicles. It just doesn’t make sense.

For example, the initial table at which meetings were held at Pixar was long, rectangular and had place cards at every seat. This super formal environment made people stiff the minute they sat down, so they replaced it with a square table, no place cards and voilà, everyone felt a lot more comfortable voicing their ideas and concerns.

Similarly, creativity is about embracing that people are different – that’s how it happens in the first place, so you should encourage your employees to show who they are by letting them design their own workspace. Imagine the tons of ideas and inspiration you’ll get just from walking by vastly different offices!

Also, don’t obsess over how people work. Let everyone work according to their own working style, whether that’s remote or in-house, in the morning or at night, more alone or more in teams. Focus on the results, not the design.

One way Pixar does this is by giving people in the tools department two days a month to tinker with personal projects (like Google). Upside down “Let’s make better mistakes tomorrow” sign, here I come!

My personal take-aways

Ed Catmull is over 70 years old. And he’s still going. That’s probably the biggest sign that he loves his work, the people love him and that they all know what they’re doing. Creativity, Inc. is a truly inspiring book, even if you’re not running a company, one of my absolute favorites this year!

Creative Schools Summary

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Creative Schools reveals how fundamentally broken our formal education system really is and how we can change our perspective to teach children the competencies and things they actually need to navigate the modern world.

I remember where I first saw Sir Ken Robinson’s face. On the TED website. “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” is the most popular TED talk of all time with over 40 million views. The knighted professor emeritus from the University of Warwick has dedicated most of his life to transforming education, especially with respect to the arts.

If you thought school was boring and feel it didn’t prepare you too well for real life, then you and Ken Robinson will get along just fine. He’s been criticizing the standardized testing machine we call school for years. In Creative Schools, he outlines how we can fundamentally shift our perspective to help shape schools that actually teach kids what they need to know.

And don’t think it’s an effort in vain, even if you’ve long finished all sorts of schooling. We’re all teachers at some point in our lives, and it’s up to us to be the best ones we can be.

Here are 3 lessons to show you where schools are, where they need to go, and how we can make it happen:

School is not designed to make you well educated; it’s designed to make you a useful, obedient worker.

When you’re teaching someone, think of yourself as a gardener.

The most important things we can teach our children are curiosity, creativity and criticism.

Ready to make school a better place for future students? Here’s how a true teacher extraordinaire thinks we can do it!

Lesson 1: Schools aren’t meant to make you better, they’re designed to make you an obedient, productive employee.

Have you ever thought about why schools are the way they are? What they were created for?

When you dig deep into the books of the history of education, what you find isn’t all too pretty. Before our Western, formal school system was introduced, only few people were schooled. Usually the sons and daughters of rich people would have private teachers to teach them in a variety of subjects like history, art, math, language, biology and music.

Why the sudden change? Why have everyone learn these things? Because after the industrial revolution, people would need them to do their work.

It’s simple. To do highly standardized factory work, people would need highly standardized factory knowledge. So at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century Western governments introduced mass education built around conformity and obedience, using the same linear processes that made factories so efficient.

100 years later our kids still run through the same standardized, test-infested machine, to become cogs in the system when those cogs have long stopped being valuable.

There’s a reason Western schools do poorly in PISA studies (not least because PISA is standardized itself) and Finnish schools with only 2 hours worth of lessons a day are at the top of the scoreboard.

Schools are not designed to make you smarter. Right now, they’re designed to make you a productive employee, who doesn’t ask too many questions.

Lesson 2: Try to think of yourself as a gardener when you want to teach someone something.

Can you remember a time when everything was interesting? When you wanted to touch, feel, look at and explore the whole world?

You might not remember it, but there was such a time. It was when you were four years old. And then you started going to school. All of a sudden, you had to do stuff. Not because it was fun. But because it was required. And you started disliking books, disliking the subjects, and you stopped exploring.

If you didn’t and you liked school, there was only one person responsible for this: your teacher. Great teachers nurture the creativity and curiosity of kids. They expand it, instead of nipping it in the bud by making their lessons boring.

We all teach at times, whether to our friends, family, kids, or actual classrooms. When we do, Ken Robinson suggests we think of ourselves as gardeners: we can’t force our “plants” to grow, but we can feed their natural desire to do so.

He says a good teacher will do four things:

Engage with children on their level to spark their curiosity – for example relating math exercises to baseball, history to the local city and music to the genres the kids listen to.

Show his or her expectations to be a mentor to aspire to.

Use different means of teaching for different students – no two human beings are exactly alike.

Bestow children with the confidence to handle whatever difficult tasks the world will throw at them.

We’re all teachers. Make sure you make whatever you teach worthwhile.

Lesson 3: What our kids really need to develop are curiosity, creativity and criticism.

In today’s world, kids don’t need to remember facts or hard skills. They’ll learn most of those during their careers. Anything beyond basic math and language understanding is rarely needed in real life.

Instead of skills, Ken Robinson argues, we should teach our children competencies. What would you want your kid to learn? A few useless subjects, or the attitudes that help it navigate life?

The world is changing fast, and there’s no way to predict what subjects will be useful tomorrow. Some things, however, are timeless. Like these three:

Curiosity – the constant drive to pay attention to the world and ask questions about it.

Creativity – the ability to come up with new ideas to solve complex, interesting problems and implement them.

Criticism – the courage to question even the answers to their own questions, filter out facts from opinions and distinguish the signal from the noise.

If we do nothing to be good parents, but instill in our kids these traits, I’d say we’ll have done a decent job. I’m sure Ken Robinson would agree. How about you?

My personal take-aways

Yes, Ken Robinson has raised his finger with this book, and it’s pointed right at governments and policy makers. But it’s more than that. While admitting that we’re standing in front of a big pile of broken processes, he also shows us how we can start picking them up and piecing them back together. Let’s all rally together for more Creative Schools.

Intimations of Paradise

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Intimations of Paradise

by Christopher Burkett


The Book in Three Sentences: A book of 73 photos by master landscape photographer Christopher Burkett.

Read the full book summary »

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