When seeking inspiration, Guardian columnist Poole (Unspeak: How Words Become Weapons, How Weapons Become a Message, and How that Message Becomes Reality, 2006, etc.) writes, it’s not a bad idea to sift through the junk pile for second thoughts.
How does inspiration happen, and how can it be leveraged into reality? That question has nourished a stream of self-help, psychology, and business literature on creativity and its capture, including books such as Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From (2011) and Daniel Levitin’s The Organized Mind (2014). In this lightly written narrative, Poole looks at a number of case studies that show how actionable new ideas are often reiterations of old ones. For instance, the modern electric car draws on 150-year-old technology, while medical treatments using maggots and leeches stretch back hundreds of years. “The story of human understanding is not a gradual, stately accumulation of facts, a smooth transition from ignorance to knowledge,” he writes. “It’s…a wild roller-coaster ride full of loops and switchbacks.” Those old ideas need not even be good ones, since merely examining them can prompt better ones, and of course not all old ideas are good. In this respect, Poole conjures up the 19th-century craze for big-game hunting and then invites us to consider what happened to the dentist who recently shot a beloved lion. Some of the author’s examples run a little long, as with his extensive discussion of how placebo drugs came into being; still, his extension of the placebo effect into other realms is interesting, as are his musings on the political applications of old ideas such as basic income and governance by peers rather than professional politicians. More than a compendium of anecdotes about the forerunners of the Tesla car or the sideways history of Viagra, Poole’s book is a jog on how to think, closing with exhortations to make a little room for the absurd and to “abandon common sense and bet against the market.”
There’s not much that’s new here, but that’s the point. A modest, enjoyable look at the care and feeding of creativity.