New isn’t all new

It’s so easy to be held back by “it’s not new enough.”

As in:

I can’t write this blog post (or this book), someone else has already said this.

I can’t claim that this idea is important, because someone else was doing something that looked a little bit like this before I was.

I can’t share my excitement about how we are tackling this problem, because parts of our approach have been tried before.

“New” doesn’t mean brand new, completely new, all new. That’s not how it works. What makes something new isn’t a set of component parts that has never been seen before. It’s the way you put those parts together in new ways, or the way you apply those parts in new domains.

By way of example, Gutenberg’s printing press, “invented” in 1439, was, technically, nothing new. Movable type had existed in China since 1051. Ink and paper-making had existed for thousands of years. Paper mills became common in Europe in the 1300s as did woodcut printing presses.

But no one had put them together in just the way Gutenberg did, and when he assembled and spread his unique combination of existing parts, he revolutionized the spread of ideas in the Western world and began the democratization of information that is still happening today.

(also: how Star Wars is practically a paint-by-numbers manifestation of the 19 steps of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, on purpose)

Don’t let your fear of “this isn’t all new” keep you from creating new things or from sharing what you feel is important about the new work that you’re doing. And don’t let the voices – both inside and outside your head – of “this has been done before” keep you from doing that next important thing or from sharing what is groundbreaking about the work you are doing.

“New” – here, now, for this thing, in this way – is new enough.

And “new,” ultimately, is about how we understand and frame a problem, and how we think about the ways we can go about solving it. If your “new” changes that, then it’s changed everything.


(for more along these lines, I highly recommend Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson)

20-80-100 and Adjacent Possibility

Katya and I were comparing notes last week about our blogs and the experience of blogging.

One of the biggest impacts blogging has had on me is that it forces me to develop thoughts that would normally remain 20% developed (in the form of casual observation) and form them into blog posts, which are about 80% fleshed out.  (Katya and I both agreed that we’d leave the 100% development of ideas to professional journalists like Ellen McGirt at Fast Company…there’s something nice about the leeway blogging gives you not to be perfect, and in fact I think it’s just this leeway that gives space for creativity.)

Think about the impact, over years, of systematically taking ideas that are partially developed and developing them fully.  Think about what you learn over time, both at the level of the individual idea – because the act of writing takes you places you didn’t know you’d go – and over time, from repeating this action every day.

I’ve been reading Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From – I’ll review it fully when I’m finished, as it’s one of the most interesting books I’ve read this year.  The foundational idea in the book is that great ideas are formed in the “adjacent possible” space, the space that’s right at the edge of understanding of a particular problem you’re working to solve.  Breakthrough insights typically come from the reassembly and reconfiguration of existing ideas that are right at the edge of what you know and what you don’t know.

This feels 100% right to me.  Generosity Day, for example, grew out of my Generosity Experiment more than a year ago, coupled with the experience of helping create Search for the Obvious at Acumen Fund (really the brainchild of James Wu), along with the ongoing hunch I’d carried around for 14 months (and explored occasionally in other blog posts) that there was something bigger that could and should come of my personal exploration of generosity.  Generosity Day was sitting in my adjacent possible space, and it took the panel at Social Media Week and the ensuing discussion with the other panelists to crystallize the “aha!” moment – that we were three days away from Generosity Day 2011, we just didn’t know it.

And if that’s right, then what serious bloggers do every day is expand – inch by inch, bit by bit – their own space of adjacent possibility.