Steven Johnson on the Importance of Play and the Decisions We Make

Steven Johnson

I’m Alan Alda and this is C+V, conversations about connecting and communicating
Steven: All the books that I’ve written about breakthrough ideas, almost all of them follow a completely different pattern, which I called years ago … I called it the slow hunch, which is, instead of a light bulb moment or an aha moment, you get this inkling that there’s something worth exploring or some idea out there. You don’t really know why. You don’t know why you’re obsessed with this, but you’re drawn into it and it’s only over time that it actually crystallizes into something more powerful. If you set up your life looking for eureka moments, looking for epiphany’s you actually won’t succeed. What you want to do is cultivate these hints that are floating around because that’s what the truly transformative ideas are going to come from.
Steven Johnson has written a dozen books about how we come up with ideas and how we make decisions. His books are full of wonderful stories – like how a defecating duck helped lead to the computer — or how Darwin made the decision about whether or not to get married. So when he visited our studio in Manhattan I knew we were in for a fascinating conversation.
Alan: 00:00:00 This is so great, to be able to talk to you because we talk most of the time on this show about relating and communicating and relating to other people. I think at least some of your work deals with relating to our own brains. That’s fascinating to me because whatever the project is, whether it’s making a big decision or trying to find the next big idea that we want to engage in, we’ve got to get in touch with the back of our heads somehow, where were all the work is being done.
Steven: 00:00:33 Yeah, that’s right. Well, that’s nice of you to say. It is a common theme throughout all my different projects is … one major one is that what you say about ideas. When people have transformative ideas, literally, where do they come from? What is the root of that, and what are the environments that allow those ideas to happen? Crucially, what are the kinds of collaborations? So much of this is about [crosstalk 00:00:59].
Alan: 00:00:59 The collaboration is under the surface that we’re not even aware of it sometimes.
Steven: 00:01:02 Yeah. That’s a huge part of it.
Alan: 00:01:06 Tell me about that. I get the impression you feel that ideas don’t come full blown to the great genius, but literally standing on the shoulders of others.
Steven: 00:01:21 Yeah. There’re two common ways that people talk about transformative ideas and where they come about that are just … it’s just misleading. And one of them as you said, is the idea of the lone genius who has this eureka moment out of nowhere. The second is that idea of that eureka moment. That you have a sudden moment of clarity where this brilliant idea pops into your head. If you go back, all the books that I’ve written about breakthrough ideas, almost all of them follow a completely different pattern, which I called years ago … I called it the slow hunch, which is, instead of a light bulb moment or an aha moment, you get this inkling that there’s something worth exploring or some idea out there. You don’t really know why. You don’t know why you’re obsessed with this, but you’re drawn into it and it stays in that hunch state for months, some cases for a decade or more in some of the people that I’ve written about.
It’s only over time that it actually crystallizes into something more powerful. If you set up your life looking for eureka moments, looking for epiphany’s you actually won’t succeed. What you want to do is cultivate these hints that are floating around because that’s what the truly transformative ideas are going to come.
Alan: 00:02:34 I think people like me promote that idea to some extent, because when we talk to people who have worked with big ideas, the tendency always is to look for the epiphany moment. When did you first become involved, and what made you want to be a scientist and how did you discover quantum mechanics?
Steven: 00:02:58 I think what happens is it’s a narrative thing. The story is better. The apple fell from the tree and suddenly Newton had the theory of gravity. It makes for a nice story. I should be clear, that those moments, when people talk about them, they do happen on some level, but they were almost always preceded by this long period of the hunch that is preparing the mind for the idea. And it’s funny, I’ve written about this twice now, including in this new book. In Darwin’s notebooks, where he comes up with the theory of natural selection in the late 1830s, he had always told the story of this idea of maybe the most important scientific idea of 19th century as a eureka moment. That he’s sitting there in his study one late night in 1838 and he’s reading Malthus on population and the idea for natural selection just pops into his head, this is the way he described it.
But he kept these incredibly detailed notebooks and journals, which show up in another way, which we can talk about in the new book, and he writes down all of his fragmentary ideas, all of his hunches. He argues with himself a lot, which is another part of the creative process we can talk about. If you go through and read the journals, it’s clear that he has the idea in some semi-conscious form for six months before the night of the epiphany. He’s just not fully aware of it, but he’s writing all these things down that could be taken from a modern evolution textbook. He continues teasing out the idea for another six months, really. Even Darwin himself wanted to condense the story down into an epiphany.
Alan: 00:04:37 That’s such an interesting experience, to be edging up on something that is a fresh look at the world. Or even a fresh look at an upcoming meeting. You get a floater that comes by with a new way of looking at it, and you say, “Oh yeah, it’s very nice.” And then it goes away, and you don’t realize you had that invaluable thought until maybe you get it five more times, and then you say, “I got to pay attention to this.”
Steven: 00:05:08 It’s a great argument for one, writing everything down, but two taking … I’ve kept this single document that was originally a Word document and now it’s a Google doc, so I could visit it anywhere online. But it’s one document where I write down every random idea I have for anything, whether it’s a book idea, or a startup idea, or a TV show idea. Whatever it is, I write it all down in there. 50% of them are terrible. 50% of them are like, how many glasses of wine did I have when I wrote that? That kind of thing. This document is now longer than … it’s 90,000 words long, so it’s longer than any of my books. I’ve been keeping it for 10 years, 15 years or something like that.
What I really try and do, this is the key thing, is to go back and reread it every six months-
Alan: 00:05:57 How can you read a book length-
Steven: 00:05:59 Well, you can skim it pretty quickly. What you find is that idea that you had in 2013 that didn’t make a lot of sense in 2013 because you didn’t have the full thought in your head, or you hadn’t met somebody who completed the idea, or the technology wasn’t there for whatever it is, suddenly in 2019, it has all this resonance, but you would have forgotten about it if you hadn’t one, written down and hadn’t gone back and revisited that.
Alan: 00:06:23 Now what about the bad ideas, or the ideas that seemed bad? Do they suddenly glow in the new look years later?
Steven: 00:06:30 Some of them do, and some of them just stay persistently bad. That’s just [inaudible 00:06:35]. Actually, there’s another thing that I’m really interested in, in terms of … it’s not quite bad ideas, but it’s something similar to this, which is something I don’t think we write about enough or cover enough when we talk about the history of ideas or science and things like that, which is the blind spots that people have. Where they’re brilliant in their field, they’re inventing something new, or they’re creating some new scientific discipline, whatever it is, but somehow despite their genius, they fail to see something that with hindsight turns out to be really crucial, that five years later they’re like, “Why couldn’t I see that?”
There’s a great story that I told in How We Got to Now about the show and the book that I wrote about history of innovation about this French inventor in the middle of the 19th century who invented, for the first time, a device that could record audio, record sound waves.
Alan: 00:07:36 In what century?
Steven: 00:07:37 In 1851, he got a patent for this device. It was called the phonautograph, the self writing of sound. Now, if you know something about the history of audio technology, Edison famously invents the phonograph 25 years later. We’ve only heard about Edison, we haven’t heard about this French guy. The reason why, is that he had a blind spot. He’d done all this amazing … he was a generation ahead of Edison, but he failed to include one key feature in his device-
Alan: 00:08:02 A microphone.
Steven: 00:08:02 … playback. Playback. You couldn’t hear what was recorded. This turns out to be a highly sought after feature in people purchasing audio equipment. What I love about it is that it wasn’t that he was trying to add that feature, he was so thoroughly in his blind spot that did he never even thought about it. He was trying to create an automated dictation machine, basically. That people would speak and record their words, and then we would learn to read the sound waves that were drawn there. He never thought about trying to turn it into playback. If you think about, it was an interesting bet. Maybe if you could see the sound waves, we would learn how to read that alphabet and you would have an automated shorthand machine, basically.
Alan: 00:08:41 You could get straight to text.
Steven: 00:08:43 Yeah, yeah. Unfortunately, human beings don’t have that capability. We still don’t have that capability in our brains. Here’s where we get to that collaboration piece. I think his biggest problem was that he was really working alone. If he’d been working with somebody who had a different angle on it or different perspective-
Alan: 00:09:05 Yeah. Like, “You know what you got here?” That kind of thing.
Steven: 00:09:06 Yeah. Imagine he’d been working with a musician. Eventually, the musician would have said, “Hey, I like what you’re doing, but what if I could hear my violin that I’ve recorded? That would be really cool.” That’s part of it, is sometimes we have these great hunches, but they’re limited by some blind spot, but if we surround ourselves with people who bring different perspectives to the problem we’re wrestling with, or the decision we’re wrestling with, they end up widening our perspective. That’s a huge part of the idea of intellectual diversity, a diversity of experiences shaping the way see the world.
Alan: 00:09:40 We keep hearing from studies of office workers diversity is so important for decision making, not just because it’s there, but because it’s profitable. You get better decisions and you get better big ideas, you’re saying too, through diversity.
Steven: 00:09:59 It’s one of the places where there’s a clear intersection between the work that I had done over the years is on innovation and then the work that I’m doing now with this new book on decision making. One shared theme is the value of diversity in both of those situations. I think you just said it perfectly there. We celebrate diversity in our society appropriately for reasons that have to do with tolerance, or equality of opportunity, or equality representation. We want to have a diverse group of leaders, we want to have a diverse congress, we want to have a diverse leadership in our corporations, whatever, because we want to have people represented and have opportunity for all walks of life, all of which is great.
But there’s another point that we should make more often, I think, which is that one of the most robust findings in the social sciences and psychology over the last 20 years is that diverse groups are just collectively smarter and more original in the way that they think in, in both their way of dreaming up new ideas, but also in making complicated decisions, that they avoid all the problems of group think and homogeneity that you get when you have a group of like minded people together who are just amplifying each other’s beliefs.
Alan: I think you said or quoted somebody who said that a smart group of likeminded people is likely to make worse decisions than a not as smart group of diverse people.
Steven: 00:13:13 There’s a great psychologist, social scientist named Scott Page and he has this slogan that I love, which is, diversity trumps ability.
Alan: 00:13:23 Wow.
Steven: 00:13:24 The idea is that if you get a bunch of people who are high IQ people, who score well on IQ tests, but they’re all from the same background, say, and they’re all the same discipline, and then you ask them to solve collectively a problem that’s complex or make a complicated decision and then you get a lower IQ group of people, but who have different backgrounds and different perspectives, they end up being more successful at solving the problem or making the decision than the allegedly smarter group. There’s this diversity bonus that we get that, I think, people don’t quite appreciate enough in a way.

x When we see diversity happening, we should … it’s challenging. It’s easier to be in a group where everybody’s the same, but we should recognize that sometimes the tensions that come out of having people with different backgrounds together will lead to better outcomes. One thing that actually I didn’t talk about and maybe enough in Farsighted, the new book, is generational diversity. Think about a big decision in your life. Think about the age span of the people you’re talking to about that choice. Are they all your peers within three or four years? Are you talking somebody who’s a generation older and a generation younger? That kind of thing.
It’s one of the things we were talking earlier about how I moved to California a few years ago and for random reasons, I ended up, through professional connections, making some wonderful friends who are basically my parents’ age, who are a full generation older than I am. When I go out there, I’m just as likely to hang out and grab a cup of coffee with someone who is 75. I’m 50. I love it. I’ve gotten so much out of it and they just have a different of-
Alan: 00:12:24 And so do they.
Steven: 00:12:25 Maybe they do.
Alan: 00:12:26 They do. For years, Arlene and I have sought out people both much younger and much older. As we get older, it’s harder and harder to find anybody older than us.
Steven: 00:12:39 People are living longer. They’re out there.
Alan: 00:12:42 But we really get a lot out of the presence of that diversity in age, and always have.
Steven: 00:12:52 It’s a big thing.
Alan: 00:12:54 Tell me, the idea of … I think you said or quoted somebody who said that a smart group of likeminded people is likely to make worse decisions than a not as smart group of diverse people.
Steven: 00:13:13 There’s a great psychologist, social scientist named Scott Page and he has this slogan that I love, which is, diversity trumps ability.
Alan: 00:13:23 Wow.
Steven: 00:13:24 The idea is that if you get a bunch of people who are high IQ people, who score well on IQ tests, but they’re all from the same background, say, and they’re all the same discipline, and then you ask them to solve collectively a problem that’s complex or make a complicated decision and then you get a lower IQ group of people, but who have different backgrounds and different perspectives, they end up being more successful at solving the problem or making the decision than the allegedly smarter group. There’s this diversity bonus that we get that, I think, people don’t quite appreciate enough in a way.

Alan: 00:14:00 Let me get back to innovation. We didn’t explore a couple of things there. I love this idea of the … what did you call it? The growing hunch?
Steven: 00:14:09 The slow hunch.
Alan: 00:14:10 The slow hunch. That seems to have been at work in the cholera story in London.
Steven: 00:14:16 Yeah.
Alan: 00:14:17 I’ve heard that story a few times, and it always is an explosion of discovery. The great moment of epiphany, the eureka moment, but it doesn’t sound like it from the way you tell the story. What’s the original story? What’s this story that we hear all the time?
Steven: 00:14:35 Actually, I lived through that when I wrote that book called The Ghost Map. I got into this story because I had heard the popular telling of it, which was that the cholera was this deadly killing disease in the middle of the 19th century and everybody thought it was in the air, that people were breathing in some noxious fume. It was called-
Alan: 00:14:59 Because the air smelled terrible, so that was a clue.
Steven: 00:15:02 London at this point … this takes place in London … was the smelliest City the world has ever seen. It was just incredibly disgusting. That book is just a dive into how disgusting London is, particularly the first chapter. If you’re squeamish, don’t read it over dinner if you check it out. Because it was so smelly, people understandably thought the smell is causing people to die and this disease is being transmitted by something in the air. It was called the Miasma theory. It turned out to be dead wrong. It was in the water. It had nothing to do with the smell. It was contaminated drinking water that was causing people to get sick.
It was one of those theories that was not only wrong, but it actually, in trying to do public health interventions based on the theory, they ended up making things even worse. They said, okay, people’s … this is going to be slightly gross. But people’s had these cesspools instead of toilets, and they were the were causing the smells from your basement, so we want you to flush all those cesspools into the Thames, which was the primary source of drinking water for the entire city.
Alan: 00:16:06 Oh my God.
Steven: 00:16:06 A modern day bioterrorist could not have come up with a better scheme for poisoning the city of London than what the public health … it was one of the first big public health acts, actually. The story has always been told that this eclectic, rogue, lone genius to our point earlier, Dr. John Snow, in the middle of an outbreak in his neighborhood of Soho in London, which at that point was one of the poorest neighborhoods in London, now it is not. He decides to make this map of the deaths that are happening around him, and he creates one of the most important maps, actually, in the history of, certainly, in medicine and maybe in the history of cartography and general, where he puts little black bars at each address where somebody has died, and if they’re 10 people who died there, he puts 10 black bars.
When he looks at the map, this is how the story goes, he sees that there is a popular pump where people would get their water in the center of all the death. The story goes that he has this aha moment and says, “Wait, it’s not in the air. It’s in the water.” He goes to the authorities and says, “Look at this map. The water is killing people. We need to shut down this pump.” They shut down the pump, and the people are saved and the world is changed because we finally figured out this big problem. I thought that’d be a great book. It’s like a Victorian episode of CSI or something. There’s a killer on the loose [inaudible 00:17:30].
And then I went to research it and spent all this time in the archives and reading all this original work that Snow had done, and it turned out that he had been working on this theory of the waterborne nature of cholera for years. For literally five years, cholera was this hobby of his that he had on the side and he’d started to think that maybe the theory was wrong. It had been slowly growing in his mind, and the map, which all that happened, but he really … the map was a way of convincing people of an idea that was incubating. It was a marketing vehicle for his idea in a way.
And then the other thing was there was this other guy who was a local minister named Henry Whitehead, the Reverend Henry Whitehead, who became his collaborator, and because he had great social skills, he was able to connect with all these people he knew, his parishioners and he accumulated a lot of the data that Snow wasn’t able to get. And so here’s a story that was about, there’s one lone genius and his breakthrough aha moment, and it turned out to be a story about collaboration and a story about a slow hunch.
Alan: 00:18:33 Now, do you have any idea how he got interested in the idea of bad water when all around him he was surrounded by this theory of the Miasma?
Steven: 00:18:45 Well, one of the things that I think is interesting and also a general point about bringing ideas is this idea that cholera was his hobby. I think that most people don’t know that. He was a doctor, and he was not an official public health person, but in his spare time he would investigate these things. That is a characteristic that a lot of people who are very creative have, is they have a lot of hobbies. That they have a lot of outside interests that shape their thinking. He was very multidisciplinary in the way that he saw things. He basically built a bunch of other maps, and he was just trying to figure out, where is the cholera happening? And then he began to think maybe that there was some cause point.
He was a pioneering anesthesiologist as well. He’d studied the diffusion of gases, and that made him think, there’s no way the smell is transmitting this disease. You wouldn’t see this-
Alan: 00:19:40 So he started exploring other-
Steven: 00:19:42 So he started looking other ways and then he got onto the idea of water. It’s an incredible story.
And speaking of incredible stories, I know you’ve been waiting for the defecating duck and Darwin’s wrestling with whether or not to get married, so stay tuned… after this short break.

I’m a great believer in the creative power of play. So I especially loved Steve’s recent book, Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World, where he takes the importance of play one step farther…

Alan: 00:19:47 Is there an element in there, do you think, of play? Because play seems, in your view, very important to coming up with new ideas.
Steven: 00:19:55 Yeah. It’s interesting. With Ghost Map, maybe not. But there’s so many wonderful stories from history of people. It’s related to the slow hunch idea, where people start to explore something just for the fun of it, with no real purpose. A huge amount of modern computing … we’re often told the story of the digital computers coming out of the war effort, which is part of the story and Alan Turing and trying to crack the enigma code and all these different things. But there’s also a whole history of computing that involves people doing things just for the fun of it. In a sense, the first programmable machines were these automatons that were just toy dolls that would-
Alan: 00:20:47 [inaudible 00:20:47] the mechanical turk, there was that one.
Steven: 00:20:49 The Mechanical turk was actually a fake automaton because-
Alan: 00:20:52 Oh that’s right.
Steven: 00:20:52 … there is an actual guy hidden away playing chess. This was a chess playing automaton. But there was a great one in the 1730s that was called the … something that was called the defecating duck. Sorry about this. There was a-
Alan: 00:21:11 Sounds like a tremendous amount of fun.
Steven: 00:21:12 It was this mechanical duck that would waddle around and quack, and then you could feed it pellets of food and the guy who invented had modeled the internal organs of a duck, and so it would actually excrete out this processed food pellet at the end. This is what people would do for fun in the salons of Paris in 1730s, watch this artificial robot that-
Alan: 00:21:35 And this led to modern computers.

Initially, you were creating this machine to automatically create movement, which was complicated. And then this guy, his name was Vaucanson started thinking about whether he could automate a loom and use it to create textiles. As part of that, he started to think, “Well maybe you could program the loom, where you’d have different routines that would say, okay, make this pattern and now make this pattern.” You could swap out instructions, basically, for the machine. He didn’t quite solve the problem. But then 50 years later, Jacquard, building on what this earlier guy had done, decided to use punch cards to program a loom and invented the Jacquard loom, which was the first truly programmable machine. And then Charles Babbage, who invented the first programmable computer saw this loom and thought, “Well what if you could … instead of making a pretty fabric, what if you could use that to actually do computation and math?” And that’s where it starts.
It really starts with a defecating duck, and beautiful fabrics, and people wanting to make colors-
Alan: 00:22:42 And music too.
Steven: 00:22:43 … and music. Yeah, yeah.
Alan: 00:22:44 Early music boxes. How far back do these programmable machines go?
Steven: 00:22:50 Well, there was one … there was an incredible group of folks at the height of the Islamic renaissance in the … something like 900 A.D, in Baghdad actually, where these brothers who were known as [inaudible 00:23:06], they built a early musical instrument that was, in a sense, programmable. That you could encode it. It was like a big music box, basically. You could encode on this rotating cylinder instructions for what notes you wanted to play. Their big innovation that they were really proud of is that you could take out the cylinder and encode it with new instructions and put it back in, and it would play a completely different song.
Alan: 00:23:32 And this was in 900 A.D?
Steven: 00:23:33 In 900, yeah. Yeah. In a sense, that is the moment in which the difference between hardware and software becomes imaginable for the first time. It’s like you have a hardware piece of machinery, and then there’s software that changes what it does. In this case, the software was a big cylinder, but the idea that you could swap those things out and get different results … and that idea which is so central to the 20th century was just kept alive by music for 600 years. It was all programmable music boxes until they started thinking about programmable ducks and looms and so on.
Alan: 00:24:06 So this sounds like delight, amusement, playing a big part in this sustenance of an innovation, that we stick with the innovation. We arrive at the innovation to start with, for some apparently meaningless sense of delight, and that keeps us at it until somebody says, “Wait, we can use it like this.” But what about play itself? Play in the process of getting an idea. When I read the descriptions of Watson And Crick coming up with the structure of DNA, constantly building models out of whatever they were building them out of, they could switch out the parts and try different things. I thought they must be at play at that.
I was interviewing Jim Watson, and I said, “Did play play a part in your discovery of the structure?” And he said, “No, no. We were very prepared indeed.” He didn’t like the idea of play. But I wonder if he was playing and didn’t want to face it.
Steven: 00:25:12 I think there is a sense in which … that’s a fascinating that he had because … I think there is a sense of which people think it’s somehow de legitimizes what they’re doing. If it’s play, then [inaudible 00:25:24]. I’m a serious scientist, or something like that. What play really involves, if you think about all the things that we put under the umbrella of play, it involves an openness to surprise and delight, right?
Alan: 00:25:41 Yeah. Spontaneity.
Steven: 00:25:42 A game is a playful experience because it always turns out slightly differently, except for maybe Candy Land, which is [crosstalk 00:25:52]. What makes a game a game is there’s some rules, but every time you play it, something new happens rand something surprising. The sense of wanting to be surprised and being open to surprise is what makes it magical. That’s sense of delight. In the book I wrote about Playing in Wonderland, I talked a lot about that we have … this is a neuroscience thing. We have a deep seated, ancient brain chemistry that rewards our minds or stimulates our minds when we experience something that surprises us.
We’re constantly walking around the world, making predictions about what’s going to happen next, and when something diverges from those predictions, we see something new, there’s this dopamine regulated experience, we’re like, “That was interesting. I need to pay attention here.” As humans became more technologically advanced, they started inventing tools to surprise us and to make our brains see something or experience something new. That’s the beginnings of music. It’s like, “Hey, you’ve never heard this sound before. I’ve made this flute out of the bone of a bird 50,000 ago.”
Alan: 00:27:00 And the idea that it was only 12 tones to work with. Modern musicians, composers can make an endless supply of surprising music.
Steven: 00:27:10 But think about just the number of instruments that have been invented over the years. You could just stick with the 50 instruments we already had, but people keep wanting to create new sounds because there’s that sense of delight and wonder that you get when you hear something new, even if it’s not functional. It’s very unclear what music does, and yet it’s so important to us.
Alan: 00:27:32 It really is. Look how it kept the computer alive and born.
Steven: 00:27:36 For sure.
Alan: 00:27:38 This is a really fascinating idea to me, the idea that play is a dopaminergic response to surprise. And that that play itself, the notion of diving into a playful set of experiments that you don’t know if they’re going to lead anywhere, but you’re drawn forward perhaps by the process which is pleasurable because it’s playful.
Steven: 00:28:10 One of the things that is most predictive of a species, including most famously, humans, of their capacity for innovation and problem solving as an adult is how much they play as a newborn or as a child-
Alan: 00:28:28 Oh really?
Steven: 00:28:28 … in their early years.
Alan: 00:28:29 That’s interesting.
Steven: 00:28:29 It’s something that really mammals do much more than any other class of creatures on the earth. Parents will often play with their young, and the idea is if you are trying to raise your offspring for a world in which there are just a fixed set of strategies, where you just do this and this is the only way we know how to get by, and we just are following this evolutionary programmed set of practices, then play is not the way to do that. But if you’re trying to train a mind to be flexible and adaptable and resilient and open to change and capable of solving problems on the fly when new situations arise, that’s what play is great at.
Alan: 00:29:15 And that’ll help you grow.
Steven: 00:29:16 And that helps you grow. Yeah.
Alan: 00:29:18 Help you deal with questions, problems, challenges that can’t be predicted at the moment-
Steven: 00:29:25 Exactly.
Alan: 00:29:25 … because you have more flexibility-
Steven: 00:29:28 Exactly.
Alan: 00:29:29 … to deal with the unknown.
Steven: 00:29:30 I’ve been thinking about it a lot as a parent. I wrote a little piece about this a while ago, that’s somewhere online if people are interested. But one of the things that I think is a great exercise, it should be done in schools, but it’s also a great thing to do with your kids is designing your own games, board games. I had this wonderful summer that I spent with my then 10 year old, where we had a summer project where we were going to make this game together and we decided to make … we were living in northern California, so we made a game about organic farming because that’s what you do when you live in Marin county.
But the process of making a game is an incredibly intellectually rich process, because first off, you’ve got to figure out, what are we make making the game about? What’s the theme of it? And then what are the basic rules going to be? Is it going to use chances? Is it going to be all strategy, is it going to be a mix? Is it going to be a board, card? Whatever it is, all that stuff. And then what you have to do is you build a hypothesis about what’s going to be fun and engaging, and you build this mental model of what the game will be like. And then you design it all, and it’s fun to design or whatever, and then you play the first game of it and it is terrible.
Alan: 00:30:42 I’ve done this. It’s almost invariable.
Steven: 00:30:44 Again, it’s like a blind spot thing, where something … you’ll always get trapped in the corner of the board or someone … whoever goes first always wins, but it’s something you didn’t anticipate. And then you go back, and you revise based on that feedback and you try it again and you revise and revise, and it’s basically the scientific method. It’s, build up a working hypothesis, test the hypothesis, revise based on the feedback [crosstalk 00:31:05].
Alan: 00:31:05 Wait, here you’re talking about the creation of play, but play itself seems to be the process of testing hypotheses.
Steven: 00:31:14 Yeah, yeah. And challenging your existing hypothesis, that’s the whole thing about surprise. You’ve built this theory of how the world works, and then somebody shows up and makes a sound or shows you a color or a pattern or a fabric or an optical illusion or a defecating duck that you’ve never seen before and your mind goes, wow, I had not thought that was possible.
Alan: 00:31:35 I think you boil this all down into the idea that if you want to know what the next big thing is, look for where people are having fun.
Steven: 00:31:43 Yeah. I remember I was writing that bit right after the summer when everyone went crazy with Pokemon, and everybody is running around in these cities, including my kids, chasing these imaginary Japanese monsters or animals or whatever Pokemon are. It looks like a ridiculous waste of time somehow, but you know that was the first glimpse of whatever the augmented reality future is when we’re going to be walking around cities with all this extra information about people or places or what’s around us. And the first vision of it was kids playing this silly same end game, but you’ve got a glimpse of the next 20 years, I’m sure, in that experience.
Alan: 00:32:23 Life is fun.
Steven: 00:32:24 Yeah.
Alan: 00:32:24 Nice. How does this all relate? It seems to me it relates a lot to making decisions. When we make decisions, that’s when we’re doing what I was thinking of before. We’ll often have two minds, and we’ve got to get both of those minds to collaborate. What’s the worst way to make a decision, and what’s a good way to make a decision?
Steven: 00:32:49 Well, I think part of it is to recognize there are different classes of decisions in life. There are lots of day to day decisions that you can go with your gut on and you can make easily, but there are these threshold decisions that you have every now and then, where they really do have longterm consequences and they involve a whole … in the book, I call them full spectrum decisions, an audio metaphor. They involve the full spectrum of what it means to be human. They are about your personal life, your emotional life, your economic life, your kids, your belief system. They all converge into a decision like this.
When we come to those kinds of crossroads, that’s where I think having more of a process, a deliberative process in making those decisions, consulting with a diverse group, imagining alternative scenarios, a lot of these things that I explore in Farsighted, this new book, that’s where I think that comes in handy and it’s important to do. But crucially, it’s deliberative, but it’s a creative process too. This is where the innovation side of it is true. You’re trying to come up with the most creative solution. When we get to those decisions, I think, we don’t want to just … we don’t want to go entirely with our gut because our gut is not yet informed enough. We want to go through the exercise of exploring all these different options, and it actually … this is the thing that connects back to Darwin.
This is such a funny story. In those notebooks that Darwin kept in the 1830s in the middle of wrestling with the theory of natural selection, he comes … there’re these two facing pages that he interrupts his scientific musings to weigh a different idea, which is, should he get married? And he basically creates a pros and cons list for whether … it’s in one page as not married, and another page as married, and he writes down a list of what will happen in both scenarios and what good and bad things. It’s a very funny list. It’s reproduced in the book if people are interested in it. He has some things like, if he gets married, he’ll hopefully have children if it pleased God, he says, which is interesting because he ultimately became agnostic. But on the other side, in favor of not married, one of the things is conversation of clever men in clubs.
Alan: 00:35:12 He would miss that.
Steven: 00:35:13 He would miss that if he got married. It was very funny. But what struck me about it … I stumbled across it when I was researching this other book about Darwin 10 years ago … is the pros and cons list is the one technique that most of us learn from making a decision, and it doesn’t quite do justice to it. There are lots more ways, and here was Darwin doing it 180 years ago. Surely, the tools have advanced [crosstalk 00:35:42] better way.
Alan: 00:35:43 Well, let me get personal about it and see if you can help me with this. A few years ago, we were trying to decide which apartment we should take. There were in two different neighborhoods, and I made a pro and con list. On the negative side, one apartment didn’t have grocery shopping nearby. We didn’t know how we were going to feed ourselves. It had nice views. The other apartment had grocery shopping, but had even better views. But there were negatives on both sides. I can’t remember all the negatives, but what I tried to do was weigh-
Steven: 00:36:22 That’s the key.
Alan: 00:36:23 … weigh the things. It turned out the more I looked at the list, the more I felt the grocery shopping should get a much higher value than even the view. But as it turned out, life had its own way of working. The grocery store that was so valuable to me closed and the view changed because they started building buildings that blocked the view of the river.
Steven: 00:36:53 Well, that part I cannot [crosstalk 00:36:55]. It’s funny. So, the couple of things … that’s interesting. But I had a decision that was similar. Although the geographic span of it was bigger, which was … and this is in a way, what got me started writing this book along with that Darwin quote is that … my version of a midlife crisis when I turned 41 was I got obsessed with the idea of having lived in New York my entire life, that I needed to live in California for some stretch of time, and that would a good thing for our family. I was tired of winter and I wanted more nature and all this stuff. My wife was not interested, didn’t actually anybody in California. She did not have the California bug.
We had this whole long decision process that I’m not sure we did very well, but it got me thinking about how we make choices like that. The choice of where you live, whether it’s micro choices like in New York, where it’s, this neighborhood versus this neighborhood. They’re 10 blocks apart, but they’re just totally different universes. Or which coast, or something like that. I think a lot of people don’t end up deciding about where they want to live, on some level, in terms of cities or countries or suburbs or wherever it is. They fall into a place. They decide on a house or an apartment, but they don’t necessarily think about, “Well, maybe we should live in a different state.” They just get pulled to places because of jobs or relationships or whatever it is, or where they were born.
And it’s a big choice, and there’s so much at stake in it. I think part of what you did is right in the sense that the biggest problem with the simple pros and cons list is that idea of weight. For Darwin, presumably having kids was more significant than clever conversation with men in clubs. Maybe not, but I think probably it was. The pros and cons list doesn’t quite do that. You’re just like, “Well, this one was longer than this one, so I should choose this one.” It also doesn’t scale up in situations where there may be three or four or five options on the table. It’s very hard to do a pros and cons lists like that.
There are some techniques, actually, that … we don’t want to get into them, I think, here … you actually would use a spreadsheet. You create a model and you give weights to all the different values-
Alan: 00:39:10 A little bit like what Ben Franklin did when he gave weights to things, but he would trust the weight that he gave it, whereas in real life, I found that I gave it a weight, and then the more I thought about it, the more I began to realize … every time I’d add up mathematically the negative weights against the positive weights, and I’d come up with a conclusion. “We’ll you really want this apartment?”, I’d say, “I don’t know. I really care about that grocery store more than I thought I did.” And I’d change the weight of it.
Steven: 00:39:46 The loss of this grocery store is clearly weighing very heavily. We want to devote the rest of our time to working through this.
Alan: 00:39:51 I’d like you to form a committee with me about my neighborhood.

Steven: 00:39:57 Another thing about that decision theory, or whatever you want to call it, is in a sense what you’re talking about, which is a certainty levels or confidence levels in parts of the decision or your analysis of the situation. People who are very bad at probability … Amos Tversky famously said, at some point, that human beings have three settings for probability. It’s going to happen, it’s not going to happen and maybe. That’s all we can do. That’s what our brain naturally goes. And so we tend to look at a situation like that and we we’re like, “Yeah, so 100%. That grocery store is going to be awesome and it’s going to be incredible”, or “That view is going to be amazing”, or whatever. We tend to not do the exercise of, “How confident am I in that assessment? Do I really think that’s true?”
If you look at great decision processes … and one of the ones that I analyze in Farsighted is the decision process that led to the raid on Bin Laden’s layer, which was deliberately conceived as a process using a lot of the techniques that I talk about in the book. One of the things that they did at every point is to say … someone would come in and say, “Yes, I think that Bin Laden is there.” And then they would say, “Yes, but give me a percentage. How confident are you?” And they would pull the room and go around the room and be like, “I’m 60%, I’m 70%, I’m 100%, 90%”, whatever it is.
Constantly having that assessment of where you are, and not just defaulting to it’s going to happen or it’s not going to happen, is a really important exercise in looking at things like these. Yes, we want this to be the case, but what are the odds that it might not turn out that way?


Alan: 00:41:43 How did it work out with you and your wife in California? Wait a second. How did it work out with you and your wife in California?
Steven: 00:41:56 In the end, it worked out well, but it was tough for a while. One of the things that I think is important in making complex decisions like this is trying to be … this is the creative part of it. A lot of times, you approach a decision and you’re like, “Should we do this or not?”, And oftentimes, the best solution is actually this third or fourth option that you haven’t thought about that is out there, and you need to go through that exploratory, innovative process to discover that other option.
In our negotiation, basically, instead of it just being, we’re going to move there forever, or we’re going to stay in New York forever, we ended up coming up with this third way, which is, we’ll move for two years and if she wants to move back, no questions asked, she can pull the rip cord and we’ll move back. We’ll go into it as this sense of, it’ll be a two year of fun adventure, we’ll live somewhere else. She had the confidence that she would get back to her friends and to New York that she loved and the pedestrian lifestyle and the grocery store that she loved. All those things that we value in New York.
I went to it. I was able to think, “Hey, look, if she likes it, then maybe we’ll stay.” We ended up staying for three years, and the first six months were not fun at all. She was not happy at all, but she came to really appreciate it and now we still spend a lot … we did move back, but we spend a lot of time out there still, and our kids have gotten this nice outdoors-y with Brooklyn Street smarts mix, which has been good for them growing up. They became big surfers, and so it was good in the end.
Alan: 00:43:26 That sounds a little like your advice to not be stuck with two choices.
Steven: 00:43:33 Yeah. Or even one choice, a whether or not choice.
Alan: 00:43:36 Whether or not to do something. There are other ways you come in at it sideways and see other options.
Steven: 00:43:42 This is actually one of the things that’s been studied extensively in the business world. This guy, Paul Nutt, did these comprehensive studies of decisions in the corporate world, and he analyzed whether people took the time to identify other options, or whether they just looked at a whether or not decision, should we do this or not binary decision. When people only looked at one option, they were much less happy in the long run with the outcome. Whereas when they took time at the beginning to have that creative process of, “Let’s see if there are other paths that we could contemplate as well here.” That even if they ended up going with the original path, they ended up being happier three years, four years down the line.
That’s a very simple … it’s almost seems obvious, but it’s a very simple exercise do when you hit one of those crossroads. It’s like, is there another road here? Before we even think about which one we want to pick, let’s make sure that there aren’t other things to explore.
Alan: 00:44:40 Which sounds a little like me, to play, again. You can come up with ideas that don’t even seem to make sense if you’re playful about it, but one of the may help you associate to an idea that does make sense and which you hadn’t thought of and wouldn’t have thought of if you didn’t play with other ideas, other options.
Steven: 00:45:07 This is a part of play, it’s about storytelling too, because you’re telling the story about the future and you’re imagining different stories. When you really want to do something, you have a tendency to tell this utopian story of how we’re going to move to California and every day we’ll be hiking in the redwoods. This is what it’s going to be like. That’s what it’s like there. And you don’t do the exercise, unless you are forced to by other people around you, or your own internal rigor about this to say, “Oh yes, but we’re going to spend a lot of time in our car. There’s going to be all this traffic and all these other things and then we’re going to miss our friends, and there won’t be a grocery store down the street”, and all the things that you don’t think about when you’re obsessed with an idea.
There are a lot of techniques for telling … there’s a long tradition of something that’s called scenario planning that comes also out of the business world, but I think it applies to personal decisions, which is, when you’re contemplating a decision like this, tell three stories about this path you’re looking at. One where things turn out well, one where things don’t turn out that well and then one where things get weird. That exercise-
Alan: 00:46:18 That’s the one that’s real.
Steven: 00:46:19 Yeah. But even if it doesn’t happen, that exercise, to try and imagine what the weird outcome would be is playful in some ways and illuminating. The other thing that, actually, I wasn’t fully aware of until I started writing this book is how important decisions are to the stories we read or that we watch. That that’s a lot of great … some of my favorite narratives in novels or in television or movies are stories where the real narrative drive comes not from, who was the killer, will they win this battle? But rather, this character has a really hard choice to make, and will they come up with an inventive solution?
Alan: 00:47:08 Yeah. I was going to ask you about this because it sounded so interesting. I want you to go into it a little more detail. The idea that reading great novels, the classic novels help you get into … they help you achieve the ability to make big decisions in a better way. Why? Why would that be true?
Steven: 00:47:31 In a sense, I think one of the ways in which we can think about great novels, but this is also true of other narrative forms too, is they give us this extraordinary inner view of a mind wrestling with a choice and when the novel is written well … for instance, I talk a lot about Middlemarch, Elliot’s great masterpiece. The novelist both shows you the character thinking, the decision, but it also maps all the different elements. Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch has this choice that involves her romantic attachment to someone, it involves her political values, it involves her concern about the town and gossip, it involves her hopes for her property, it involves a major economic consequence for her life. All these different things are bound up in this choice.
When we read novels, we go through and in a sense, get this rehearsal by watching people make those decisions. It’s practice for our own choice. Yeah, there’re different variables in the choices we make, but we get to simulate those things. In a way, it’s interesting. I know had Paul Bloom on a while ago with his Against Empathy book, but it is a form of empathy, in a sense. You enter into the mind of other people and watch them make choices, and I do think that that, on some level, makes you a better decision maker.
Interestingly, as the book was done, basically, we decided with our oldest son who was 16, to watch the great TV series, Friday Night Lights, that Texas football series. I hadn’t realized that … I’d seen it before, and I hadn’t realized until we watch it again that every episode, there’s a decision at the center of it. Like the coach wants to do something with the team, but the town is against it and his wife was mad at him about something and there was a race issue with one of the kids that he’s trying to figure it away. What makes the plot compelling is that he comes up with a solution to this complicated, challenging decision that some compromise makes it work or that he imagines a third way that gets them out of the bind that he is in or she is in, depending on the character.
I thought, watching the show with my 16 year old … I was like, “This is so great.” He sits there for 45 minutes and watches people wrestling with hard choices and trying to be true to their values and come up with the best solution like that. It’s an incredible practice for being a grownup.
Alan: 00:49:59 My wife and I are bingeing now on an Israeli television series called [Shtisel 00:50:04], I think that’s the name, and every scene is good people wrestling with hard decisions, and it’s interesting. I’m becoming aware of the power of a story … sorry. It’s interesting, and I’m becoming aware of the power of a story about decision making. It sounds like a quiet occupation, it’s not like riding a horse into town and cleaning up the town with your sixgun. But it’s a powerful thing to have to choose between your loyalty to one ideology or lifestyle and your loyalty to your family, or whatever the choice has to be. I guess we’re faced with that all the time, and when it gets boiled down into a good story, it’s very involving.
Steven: 00:51:00 When it’s done well, it is a beautiful thing. It’s partially that we … in a sense, these things are simulations. We don’t yet have a computer program that we can run that would say, “Simulate my move to California.”
Alan: 00:51:20 I tried to work one out when I was figuring out the apartment, and I gave up on it.
Steven: 00:51:26 But novels in a sense, are these simulations, and actually there’s … you’ve always been so great in your interest in the brain science. One of my favorite discoveries in writing this book is this whole new understanding of the brain that’s emerged in the last 20 years about the what’s called the default network.
Alan: 00:51:43 Oh, I love that.
Steven: 00:51:45 Basically, this crazy, beautiful example of serendipitous discovery in science when they first had the FMRI and PET machines that allowed you to see activity in parts of the brain in real time. All these researchers were like, “This is fantastic. We can now figure out what parts of the brain are active when someone is identifying a face or doing mental math or listening to music, whatever it is.” And so they stuck everybody into the scanners and had them do whatever they were studying. But they needed a control because there’s so much activity in the brain anyway, so they needed an example of the brain doing nothing and then they could compare it to the brain doing something and they can figure out the difference.
So they stuck people in the scanners and said, “Now just sit there and don’t do anything.” And then they got the results back from the scanners, and it turned out that when people were instructed to sit there and do nothing, their brain was more active than when it was given a task.
Alan: 00:52:36 That’s when the good stuff is happening.
Steven: 00:52:39 It was more active in the evolutionary modern parts of the brain, the most human parts of the brain, and so then they were like, “What is going on?” For a while, they just thought it was a mistake. They were like, “Something’s wrong with our scanners”, but everybody kept having the same results. Eventually, they realized that this was this part of the brain that was lighting up. It’s now called the default network because the brain seems to default to this. What people are doing during that time is daydreaming and mind wandering. It’s sometimes called cognitive time travel, where they build simulations of future events based on recent past events.
The second you are told to do nothing and you’re just sitting there, you start going, “Okay, well next week if we end up finding that apartment, then we maybe that would be interesting and maybe we can also take that in. When I get that raise at work and then I could go on and do that and [inaudible 00:53:24].” And you these models of the future-
Alan: 00:53:27 You’re automatically at play.
Steven: 00:53:29 Yeah, you’re [crosstalk 00:53:30].
Alan: 00:53:29 Playing out scenarios.
Steven: 00:53:33 And then the body tests each scenario with its emotional response. You imagine what might turnout and you think about, “Oh, that would make me feel bad”, or [crosstalk 00:53:41].
Alan: 00:53:40 You get a cramp.
Steven: 00:53:44 There’s an argument now that this is may be one of our superpowers as a species, that we don’t think even our close relatives among the primates have much of a sense of the future at all. In a sense, we’re doing this … this maybe the roots of storytelling itself, imagining a future that has not happened yet.
Alan: 00:54:03 Oh, what a good idea.
Steven: 00:54:04 We took that thing that we [crosstalk 00:54:07].
Alan: 00:54:07 But did you just get that idea? Is this an epiphany or have you been hunching along on this [crosstalk 00:54:12].
Steven: 00:54:12 I’ve been working on slowly building a connection between the red sides and the novel, but I’ve been working on it for 30 years.
Alan: 00:54:17 The idea that play is so essential in that regard to both making decisions and to saying, “This stone tool works pretty well, but what if we fool around with it and get in a little improvement in it?” And all of a sudden we’ve got technology.
Steven: 00:54:37 And that ability to imagine a future where that stone tool has been changed into something else. You can’t really invent without a concept of a future with different possibilities in front of you, where you can be like, “I can imagine taking this and this and this and doing that. Maybe I should try that.” I think that has a really important lesson for us on a day to day level, which is carve out time to just let your mind wander.
Alan: 00:55:04 I’ve begun to do that. I love the devices I have, but I’ve literally thought about the default network and I thought I may not be getting the best use of my brain if I keep it busy looking at the screen.
Steven: 00:55:20 You know what? I think, actually, that’s the lovely thing about pedestrian … getting back to New York. You just spend a lot of time walking around, and I deliberately don’t wear headphones and listen to podcasts, as great as podcasts are, because the time I spend … I go out of my way to walk, to get coffee every morning. It takes me about 20 minutes. I have a nice coffee maker in my house, but I really … my wife’s always like, “Why are you going out when …”, and I’m like, “I like to walk?” I think about things during that walk, and I’m not being programmed with anything, I’m not looking at my email, I’m not checking Twitter. I’m just in my own thoughts. I’m in my own newly caffeinated thoughts, coming back, which even better. It’s an important part of my ritual.
Alan: 00:56:07 Well, I could talk to you all day. I would love to. In fact, we ought to get together sometime and just talk.
Steven: 00:56:13 Yeah. Or just sit there in mind-wander together.
Alan: 00:56:15 Yeah. That’s right. That’s right.
Steven: 00:56:17 Thank you.
Alan: 00:56:18 We usually end our talks with this list of seven questions. Quick questions and we all get quick answers. You’re game for this?
Steven: 00:56:25 Yes, absolutely.
Alan: 00:56:26 Okay. Number one, what do you wish you really understood?
Steven: 00:56:35 I think I’m going to spend my whole life trying to understand really where new ideas come from. I think I’ve just cracked the surface of that, but the source of creativity and its root side, I’m going to be pursuing that mystery, I think, for the rest of my life.
Alan: 00:56:51 Well, I look forward to what you come up with. What do you wish people understood about you?
Steven: 00:56:58 I think the thing that … this is common with folks who have had some success in their life, is that the feeling on the inside is always, “I am a complete imposter.” Where you’re just like … you’ll always have this thought at the back of your mind like, “Yeah, well that book was fine, but that’s probably the last good book that I’m never going to write.” [crosstalk 00:57:23]. No, you totally do. I think it keeps you driving. In trying to keep up.
Alan: 00:57:27 But do you want people to know this about you?
Steven: 00:57:31 Maybe I don’t. [inaudible 00:57:32]. Delete that.
Alan: 00:57:34 Okay, next question. What’s the strangest question anyone has ever asked you?
Steven: 00:57:39 Well, I guess when I first went on … but just recently, book tour for Farsighted. I hadn’t thought about this at all, that I write this book about decision making and I go on call-in radio shows and I talk about all this stuff, and then people call in with their live question, and the question is, “So my wife and I were trying to decide whether we should have a second kid. Should I?” I was like, “Oh no. I’m an advice column now”, or something like that. I don’t want to get into this business.
Alan: 00:58:07 Unexpected too. How do you stop a compulsive talker?
Steven: 00:58:14 I hope that the answer is that I don’t have to because the compulsive talker in the conversation. Because I’ve written about so many different things, I have a very wide but maybe thin knowledge of the world. I know a little about a lot of things, and so whatever … sometimes I pride myself and I say … you get into the cocktail party conversation, or whatever the person does, I have just enough knowledge to-
Alan: 00:58:42 To get in.
Steven: 00:58:42 … actually get in there and say, “Well, that’s interesting, what you just said about ant colonies. I happen to have written a chapter about ant colonies [inaudible 00:58:48].” You can throw them off guard a little bit when you do that.
Alan: 00:58:53 Good. Next question. Is there anyone for whom you just can’t feel empathy?
Steven: 00:59:00 I’m having a hard time feeling empathy for our current president. I have to say that. I think about it a lot. Generally, I’m very optimistic and, I think, empathetic person, but there have been some times where it’s been hard to do that.
Alan: 00:59:18 How do you like to deliver bad news? In person, on the phone or by a carrier pigeon?
Steven: 00:59:25 A carrier pigeon would be a great option. I think this is actually one of the weakest things about me, is that I … and I’ve tried to get better at this, is that I don’t really like conflict, and so I do have a tendency to avoid difficult conversations, whether it’s bad news or I’m being critical of something that someone else has said. I have learned that when I actually go and do them, that I’m actually pretty good at executing on the delivering the bad news or making the conversation work, but I still feel that gut reaction of, “If I could deliver this via a carrier pigeon, I would.”
Alan: 01:00:03 Well, it’s just a thought. That leads into the last question. What, if anything, would make you end a friendship?
Steven: 01:00:12 I think it’s the classic thing. I’ve had a couple of situations where there was just a basic trust issue, where you find somebody is just not telling the truth to you. It’s just so hard to figure out what’s going on and second guess when you don’t have the basic validity of this person who’s allegedly my friend is not being truthful. That’s a pretty big deal breaker.
Alan: 01:00:35 Well, I sure have loved this conversation.
Steven: 01:00:37 Me too. So much fun. [crosstalk 01:00:39]
Alan: 01:00:38 Yeah, really fun. Thank you.

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Steven Johnson, is the author of eleven books, including such bestsellers as Farsighted, Wonderland, Where Good Ideas Come From, and The Ghost Map. He is also the host of the PBS series How We Got To Now and the podcast American Innovations.

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