5 Books On How to Discover Novel Ideas

Over the last year, I’ve been trying to better understand how people discover new ideas. In this selection, I’d like to share books that helped me grasp the emergence of key ideas in history, the nature of creative thinking, and how to find luck in your endeavors.

Why Books?

A book is an anti-fragile way of information transfer. From clay tablets to the digital renaissance with the Gutenberg project, the book continues to pass on knowledge through generations.

Today, it’s definitely not the most effective tool to transfer knowledge. Still, thanks to its long-lasting history, a good book allows you to achieve what other mediums don’t. You can have a conversation with the author, who is long gone.

We all want to read more, but the secret is to read better. It means to better work with the text and better choose books to devote our precious time to.

Over the years, I’ve tried various techniques on how to select books. And the one I liked the most is the adaptation of the famous Barbell investment principle. Thanks to it, I avoid lousy ratings and recommendations that used to direct me toward all this business and self-help bullshit that proliferates in the book market.

Don’t get me wrong. There are some excellent books in these genres. But the majority of them reiterate one or two decent ideas over the hundreds of pages. With these, you’re better off if you just read the summary. Therefore, on the one hand, I read books that have stood the test of time. And on the other, I pore over what’s relevant to my work, current events, or life.

I’ve never been a great fan of reading. But I loved learning new things since I was little. That’s why, in 90% of cases, I read books to learn and find specific answers.

When selecting works, I balance the old and the new and interleave the topics related to the theme I want to find out more about. For instance, if I want to become a better investor, I consider investment books the worst way to achieve this goal.

To become a successful investor, you must develop a deep sense of insight and breadth of thought; you don’t need to know how to prepare a term sheet. It’s not that it doesn’t matter; it’s just not a critical factor for your success. And to develop these senses, you must learn more about various relevant topics by interleaving them (e.g., psychology, technology, economics, etc.). Also, many studies have confirmed the effectiveness of interleaving as a learning method.

1. The Innovators by Walter Isaacson

Isaacson has a supernatural talent for writing historical narratives. In this work, he describes individuals who’ve built the digital world as we know it.

Having privilege as opposed to having persistence. The combination of humanities and technical sciences. The role of the state, corporations, and society in technological progress. Human-computer symbiosis as opposed to artificial intelligence. These are just some of the topics raised in this book.

While reading, the entire digital age unfolds as the product of the tight collaboration of many talented people. They had diverse experiences, skill-sets, and often worked under the same roof (not remote, unfortunately). But what is more, they found themselves at the intersection of the cultural trends with a distinct taste of freedom and rebellion.

Despite Isaacson’s predominant romanticism, the colossal research work he’s done made me wonder about how all these monumental ideas emerged:

  • How did Ada Lovelace, the daughter of George Byron, managed to develop a precursor to modern programming? How did she combine the incompatible, at first glance, domains of mathematics and poetry?
  • In what way did Ada achieve such a high level of thought, contemplating about machines’ abilities to reason while her father was busy pounding the automated workplaces brought by the Industrial Revolution?
  • Why did Jacquard loom inspire the founders of the first computer? And why did prototypes of the first computer appear in different parts of the world at the same time? 
  • How did microchips influence the idea of ​​sending a man to the moon?
  • Why Bell Labs, which created a transistor, the steam engine of the digital revolution, couldn’t produce a transistor-based product? How did Texas Instruments make the quantum leap from oil production to the release of the first transistor radio that gave life to rock’n’roll, becoming the mouthpiece for Elvis Presley’s That’s All Right?
  • How did the melting pot of Silicon Valley’s blue-collar contractors from the U.S. Department of Defense, startups inspired by Intel and Atari, hackers from Harvard and MIT, left radicals and activists give birth to such cult phenomena as the state-of-the-art keynotes of Apple?

As Einstein famously said, new ideas arise intuitively, but intuition is nothing more than the result of previous experience. Therefore, if you like to expand your knowledge and find the deep meaning behind things, this book is definitely for you.

2. Range by David Epstein

I first came across David and his thoughts in a podcast. In my career, I tried many things – from selling Christmas trees online to working in the Parliament of Canada – before coming to the world of tech. Hence, the topic of the book couldn’t but resonate with me.

In his book, Epstein poses arguments as to why narrow specialization is an ineffective strategy for solving critical human problems. He points out that the modern world needs more scanner people. People who try themselves in different disciplines before focusing on one thing. People who can work between contexts.

This year, Bill Gates also recommended this book in his annual list, highlighting that Epstein’s insights largely explain why Microsoft has achieved such a massive success.

The problems we’re facing today are becoming more and more interconnected. In the past, however, everything was a part of a narrow, superficial context, which stalled progress. For example, biology was not related to chemistry, and we didn’t know much about the universe’s history. Now, we have biochemistry and a deep understanding of the Big Bang, the Earth’s core, and space.

The book is well supported scientifically with numerous references to various research papers from cognitive science.

To make his arguments resonate, David cites fascinating stories about a variety of topics. He portrays the differences in Roger Federer’s and Tiger Woods’ upbringing and explains why winners of health-related competitions on Kaggle are often not medical or ML experts; or how Game Boy was set to revolutionize game consoles even with outdated technology.

But the most worthwhile lesson I learned is that asking the right question is often the key to solving the most challenging problems.

As Epstein writes, the difference between winning at Jeopardy! and curing cancer is that we know the answers to the questions in the TV show.

3. How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens

Richard Feynman famously said that notes aren’t records of his thinking process, but they are his thinking. He believed that if you can’t describe something in your own words, it means that you don’t understand it.

Even the smartest people in the world aren’t born with ideas – they must discover them. Hence, Sönke Ahrens’ book is an excellent guide to the art of writing for discovering the unobvious.

Despite the subtitle, the principles outlined apply to everyone, not just writers or students. The approach to note-taking described by Ahrens was inspired by the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann. He was an extremely productive writer and academic, thanks to a system of taking notes, which he called Zettelkasten. The system’s basic idea is that the essence of a note is as valuable as its links with other notes or content.

I keep different notes for as long as I can remember. And when I read books or listen to podcasts, I often want to write things down. I’ve tried everything from mind maps to a fashionable Cornell Note-Taking System. But all of it proved ineffective for better thinking.

Our brain is a beehive of associations, but we are taught to think linearly. Thus, our knowledge doesn’t accrete to help us discover original thinking. As the famous TED talk illustrates, no new ideas come out of nowhere fully formed; they are constantly having sex with each other.

Collecting highlights from books does nothing to make it happen. To expand the horizons of our thinking, we not only need artifacts, methods of organizing them matter too. Otherwise, all excerpts that you save from books, articles, or podcasts are just dead weight. But many people struggle with writing and fail to write consistently. And I am guilty of it too. For this reason, we’re building a product that helps you adopt a habit of note-taking for thinking.

I no longer want to deprive you of your own enlightenment. So if you, like me, haven’t found an approach to organize your knowledge in a way that helps discover new ideas, then you should definitely read Sönke’s book.

4. The Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant

We often hear that history can repeat itself. But can it? Or do we only see what’s on the surface? Perhaps, the reality is more complicated than that.

In this phenomenal book, the Durants provide their own answers to these questions and share historical lessons on how our civilization was built. Each of the chapters is devoted to a specific area of ​​our lives: economy, morality, state, and so on. Having won the Pulitzer Prize, this book presents a concise summary of many years of the Durants’ work on the History of Civilization.

The biological nature of the concentration of capital, the evolution of political regimes, the discovery of America as a product of the failure of the Crusades. These lessons teach us to better understand our past, the people around us, and their actions throughout history. We, as human beings, tend to repeat mistakes. The Durants offer numerous examples of such failures in history, portraying the class struggle in ancient Greece and Rome or the widespread violence during the French Revolution compared to the peaceful triumph of the bourgeoisie in England.

But in fact, the wisdom discussed in the book is quite challenging to recognize and apply in daily life. And the main lesson, in my opinion, is that people interpret events accurately in retrospect but refuse to see the truth in the process. Simultaneously, our strengths are our greatest vices, especially when we make decisions in life, business, or politics.

As the book illustrates, our innovative discoveries are binary in nature. They can destroy us with the same force as they heal. Therefore, with the help of the Durants, we can learn to better understand historical phenomena and their prerequisites to not make our future become more like the episodes of Black Mirror or Christopher Nolan’s movie.

The book is not an easy read. The authors have squeezed a hundred centuries of our history into a hundred pages. And they provided zero details of historical events. Every second sentence is a work of art, which makes you digest this book slowly and think deeply. If this is something you like, then I definitely encourage you to read it.

5. The Art of Doing Science and Engineering by Richard Hamming

Richard Hamming is an outstanding figure in the history of technology. I think that programmers may recognize his name from the Hamming codes, which allow you to detect and correct errors in bits of information.

But his achievements are not limited to this. He inspired many people to discover new things by teaching them the “style of thinking” through which innovative ideas are born.

Working with Feynman, Fermi, and Oppenheimer on a nuclear bomb, Hamming sought to understand the qualities of these great scientists, which allowed them to achieve outstanding results in their fields. After joining Bell Labs and contributing to almost everything that the organization produced, he decided to pass on his knowledge through teaching in the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School. Therefore, this book is a textual adaptation of his course that bore the same name.

In his remarkable work, Hamming often speaks of the importance of predicting what the future would look like. These predictions are paramount since they help us discover novel ideas. The irony is that he makes his assumptions on what the world would look like in 2020. Last year, Stripe Press also republished the book. And it turns out that Hamming managed to predict many developments taking place in our time, except for the global pandemic 🙂

The topics that resonated with me the most were:

  • The difference between strong will and stubbornness with the example of Albert Einstein and his Unified Field Theory;
  • The importance of people who stimulate your thinking, even if they are challenging to work with; 
  • The impact of a new environment on how others perceive you or you perceive yourself;
  • Techniques of the famous mathematician John Tukey that helped him expand the application context of new knowledge;
  • Expertise vs. broad specialization;
  • The influence of age and experience on discovering new concepts in various fields – from science to politics.

Hamming explores these topics through practical examples from the history of hardware, software, or fiber optics. There is a big chunk of math in the book, but you can safely skip it. Sometimes, if read in bed, it even helps you fall asleep faster 🙂

Thanks for reading this far! I hope these books will help you learn more about how to look for new ideas, be curious, and never stop learning. As Naval Ravikant points out, the means of learning are abundant; the desire to learn is what’s scarce.

But the most popular books aren’t necessarily the best ones. They are just the most advertised. Therefore, I want this article to bring more visibility to these excellent authors and their work.

Closing Remarks

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