Why Ambition Is Overrated When It Comes To Innovation

“It’s liberating to have something where you have great passion and no ambition.”

Beth Comstock is the Vice Chair of GE and is the leader of GE’s efforts to accelerate new growth. Every month, she leads a discussion with a game-changing author and thinker in GE’s Changemaker Book Club, streamed live on Facebook. Recently, she joined bestselling author Steven Johnson for a conversation on the future of innovation—and its often unexpected origin. Steven is the author of ten books, including Where Good Ideas Come From and, most recently Wonderland, which highlights the influence of wonder and delight on the movements that shape history.

This conversation has been edited and condensed. To view the full conversation, click the video below.

Beth: I think all of us are trying to figure out how to navigate the world with so much innovation and change [surrounding us]. What led you to write Wonderland?

Steven: Wonderland came out of a project I did called How We Got to Now, about the history of innovation. It was looking at all these elements of the modern world that we take for granted, like electric light, and tracing the history of where these technologies or innovations came from. That was a really fun project, [and] I wanted to do a sequel of sorts.

This time, the argument is that in the history of innovation, there’s a surprisingly important role for what I call play, but includes delight, and amusement, and wonder. The things that people initially did just for the fun of it, with no utilitarian purpose. Those playful explorations have often led to world-changing ideas in science and technology.

Beth: Really, you’re saying the future starts with play. Walk us through one of the best examples that brings this to life.

Steven: The book actually begins in Baghdad more than 1,000 years ago at the height of the Islamic Golden Age. At this point, Baghdad was the most advanced city in the world, and the seat of incredible scholarship. There was a place in Baghdad called the House of Wisdom, [which] was this mix of a think tank, translation bureau, and maker lab.

A group of engineers inside the House of Wisdom built all these incredibly ahead-of-their-time engineering projects. They included these advanced hydraulics systems, flow regulation systems, float valves, advanced clocks, some of the most advanced engineering technologies the world had ever seen. Yet almost every object they built was a toy.

One of the things they created was called “The Instrument That Plays Itself.” It was basically an automated organ that you could get to play notes automatically by encoding the notes in a little pinned cylinder, a rotating metallic cylinder with little pins corresponding to the notes, like a music box.

This was just for amusement, [but] what was so radical about this idea was that, if you wanted to change the notes that the instrument played, you could take out the cylinder, encode it with a new set of notes, and put it back in, and it would play completely different music.

Beth: Sounds like early coding.

Steven: It was the first programmable machine.

Beth: What year was this?

Steven: 800 AD. The idea of this separation between hardware and software becomes imaginable at that time. In fact, it stays alive in the world of music for almost 1,000 years before people first think about programming patterns of fabric. Then, finally, people start to think about encoding digital information and programming in modern computers.

Beth: Just reading your work and hearing you, you have a very nimble mind, but you’re able to make connections. Have you always been this way, or have you had to train yourself to make those connections? What advice would you have for people trying to do what you do?

Steven: I don’t know. I think what I’ve always had is curiosity. When I stumble into a new field, I have a great sense of, “Oh, I have to learn everything I can about this.”

Beth: You named your book Wonderland—as I hear you talk about it, it’s almost like you’re Alice in Wonderland. You’re going down that rabbit hole, and you don’t know what you’re going to find.

Steven: When I was in my 20’s, I had a pair of friends who were writing a screenplay, and they had a minor character that was based on me. I was comic relief. The joke was, no matter what anybody was talking about, my character would come in and say, “That is so interesting!”

“The fun of play, particularly playing games, is developing resilient, adaptive strategies to respond to unpredictable events.”

Beth: A number of world-changing machines were developed simply through trial and error, not science. What’s the difference between trial and error and play, or are they the same thing?

Steven: Well, one thing about play is there has to be, by definition, a certain level of surprise and having your expectations challenged. This is the difference between a game and a fixed narrative. What makes a game interesting is that you don’t know what’s going to happen. That’s why so many games involve chance. You have dice or cards because you need a level of unpredictability.

When we play, we are opening ourselves up to experiences that are going to surprise us. The fun of play, particularly playing games, is developing resilient, adaptive strategies to respond to unpredictable events.

That’s one of the reasons why play is so valuable in the classroom. If you’re just trying to get people to learn things, [then] formulas, facts, lectures, and tests are a great way to do it. If you’re trying to get people to think creatively and respond to situations that you can’t anticipate, then play is much better.

Beth: In [Wonderland], you say, “The networked nature of technical progress is that inventions are almost never solitary, isolated creatures. They depend on other inventions that complete them or endow them with new applications their original inventor never considered.” What have you learned from that? Any lessons on collaboration?

Steven: What happens is a network of people will come up with an important invention in one field. That solution can be borrowed by another field, seemingly unrelated to the initial field, and it unlocks a new door of possibility.

One of the technologies that we rely on every single day is the keyboard. Typewriter keyboards, alpha-numeric keyboards, were actually invented very late. We should have been able to invent typewriter keyboards in the 1600’s or 1700’s, but in fact, they weren’t invented until the late 1800’s. The idea for it came from music. We had musical keyboards for almost 2,000 years before typewriters were invented. We had clavichords and harpsichords and piano fortes, and finally, people began to think, “Wait, we could take this metaphor of using all 10 of your fingers to create notes and switch it into letters and numbers.” The first typewriter was actually called the “writing harpsichord.”

Beth: That’s quite beautiful. Play is the fuel for all growth and creativity. I work in GE, a company of engineers. Are engineers playful?

Steven: The campuses of a lot of the big tech companies are very playful. We sometimes make the mistake of thinking the volleyball courts and the foosball tables and the musical instruments in those offices are a perk of success. But I think they’re actually one of the reasons why those companies are so successful. They’ve created an environment where the mind is constantly at play, even if it’s doing serious work.

“They’ve created an environment where the mind is constantly at play, even if it’s doing serious work.”

Beth: That’s so interesting. GE was born out of Thomas Edison’s brain. We went and did some research. Thomas Edison wasn’t very playful.

Steven: Edison was a very interesting figure. He’s an example, actually, of one of the ways in which a story is often mis-told, in the sense that he’s often credited as the inventor of the light bulb, when in fact there were multiple inventors of the light bulb. It was very much a network invention.

What Edison did brilliantly is create the first innovation lab. [Those] that were coming up with ideas in the lab were very collaborative and very diverse in their fields of expertise.

Beth: Despite all this, we’re taught to be serious and stop playing. What are you learning about education? How have you changed your parenting skills?

Steven: I spent last summer designing a board game from scratch with my nine-year-old son. We sat there brainstorming what the rules should be, and made a little board with magic marker and cardboard, cut out some cards, things like that. That process of collaborating with your kid and dreaming up a game is an incredible educational experience. It’s a great bonding experience.

Beth: You said the process brought out the child in you and the adult in your child.

Steven: Kids are experts at games, so they’re sitting there like, “Dad, that will never work.” That dynamic was great, but the other thing about it was this concept of emergence. When you’re designing a game, you have to go through this exercise of saying, “Okay, with these rules and these objectives and this board, I think it’s going to be a great game.”

Then you sit down and play it the first time, and it’s terrible. It’s too easy or it’s too hard or there’s not enough strategy. The game properties are an emergent property of the rules you’ve created. Then you have to modify those rules. That’s the trial and error.

Beth: Speaking of which, on page 281 you say, “When the world surprises us with something, our brains are wired to pay attention. Psychologists have long understood that this appetite is an integral part of the human mind. Countless studies of newborn infants have shown that, before we can crawl or grasp or communicate, we seek out surprising phenomena in our environment.” This need to seek out something new is genetically coded in our makeup.

Steven: It’s beginning to be coded into artificial intelligence, too. This is one of the ways in which we train computers to be more human-like in their intelligence. We give them a bunch of information about the world, let them make predictions about what will happen next, and when they’re wrong, you encode the system so that it pays extra attention to those mistakes. It’s learning from mistakes.

Play takes that interest in having our expectations challenged and puts in safe boundaries. We evolved brains that were interested in being surprised, so that we would learn from surprising events. A tiger jumping out of a bush and attacking us is very surprising. Play lets you rehearse those moments of surprise with the stakes being lower.

Music, in a way, is this controlled environment of surprise. When we don’t like a pop song, it’s because it sounds too familiar. When we listen to completely atonal music, we can’t find a pattern at all, so we’re not surprised by it. It just seems like noise. What works for music is that middle zone where it’s kind of surprising and kind of not. That [also] seems to be the zone where people learn the most effectively.

“A tiger jumping out of a bush and attacking us is very surprising. Play lets you rehearse those moments of surprise with the stakes being lower.”

Beth: Many of us at GE use games to improve collaboration, but the games are very focused on generating outcomes. Is there a middle ground between the serious games and the purely social ping-pong table?

Steven: Well, they’re both valuable parts of the spectrum. On the ping-pong side of it, in Wonderland I have a whole riff about spaces that are designed just for recreation, like bars and taverns and coffeehouses. Those spaces have been very important, because when you create an environment where people are more casual, where people’s identity is more fluid, all these new ideas are more likely to percolate. That’s the role of the ping-pong table, where we’re not trying to solve the problem that we’ve created this role-playing game to solve. We’re just hanging out and it’s more relaxed, but in that fluid, social space, you’re open to new ideas.

Beth:This book has really made me think about how I don’t have enough play in my life. Have you had to rediscover play?

Steven: Well, I guess I’ve always had an appetite for it. The big element of play in my life is that I’m an amateur musician. I have a whole recording studio in my house and a bunch of guitars and keyboards. I probably recorded a hundred songs over the years that I’ve written and played all the instruments on. I think maybe eight people have heard those songs. It’s a beautiful thing because it’s just for me, and it’s liberating to have something where you have great passion and no ambition.

Beth: I love that. Great passion and no ambition. Is that maybe another definition of play? Do you need ambition to play?

Steven: I don’t think you always do. That’s one of the things that makes it playful, you’re liberated from that. I’ll sit there and crank away on a book for hours and hours. Then, I’ll be working on a song, and I’m very focused, but it’s a completely different way of thinking and being in the world.

“It’s liberating to have something where you have great passion and no ambition.”

Beth: People are recognizing you because they’ve seen “How We Got to Now” on PBS. “How We Got to Now” leads to Wonderland, [and] now you’re writing a book on long-term decision-making. Is there a common thread?

Steven: The decision-making book is one that I came up with and sold the proposal for almost 10 years ago. It’s been sitting in the background, which is a great way to work, by the way. Right now, I am technically working on three books. When you’re researching one thing, you stumble across something that’s useful to Project B or Project C.

I have this thing called the Spark File where I write down every random idea that I stumble across, even if I don’t know where it goes. I try and revisit that whole massive document. What happens is the idea that you had in 2011 was just a hunch, just a piece of something. [It] didn’t fully make sense to you. But when you revisit it in 2017, suddenly because of something that’s changed in the world, or something that’s changed in you, or a new collaborator you have, it makes all the sense in the world.

Beth: It’s kind of like dear diary for your hunches.

Steven: Put them all in one place. Don’t try and file them away, because if you file them away, you never find them.

Beth: What’s this slow hunch theory?

Steven: It’s the anti-eureka moment. Everybody talks about the light bulb moment, the eureka moment, the ah-ha moment, but actually, it doesn’t happen that way. What happens with really big ideas is that they start in this hunch-like stage, but there’s something interesting there. People keep those hunches alive for long periods of time and continue to develop them, making connections or partnering with people who can fill out the hunch in some way. Those tend to be the biggest ideas in the long run.

Beth: If you could synthesize all of your books and musings, what would be the major principles you’d want people to take away?

Steven: There are a lot of different themes, but two run throughout all the books. One [is] the creative, playful side of innovation. When we think about things like STEM, we’re so focused on, “Okay, we have to do science and math and engineering.” Well, there is this creative side to it. If you don’t emphasize that, it’s not fun, and we lose something.

And [the second is] the extent to which diversity drives innovation. Groups are more creative, more inventive when they’re diverse, when we have different worldviews, different cultural backgrounds, different genders. I think right now that’s a pretty important message.