Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Journaling toward Discovery

The journal or notebook is an important tool for actual and would be innovators.

In his book, The Myths of Innovation, Scott Berkun surveyed over 100 scientists, programmers, and researchers to discover what were their favorite techniques for finding ideas.  Journals ranked high in popularity along with brainstorming, experimentation, prototyping, collaboration, and exploring ideas from other domains.  


Let's now turn from a small survey of a mix of professionals to world-historical innovators.

Einstein.  Einstein's notebooks go back to high school (or earlier) where he would record observations, problems, designs and plans for experiments, experimental results, or simply points made in articles.In spite of his prodigious memory, Einstein felt the need to write ideas down whenever the came to him and carried a notebook in his pocket.

Picasso.   Biographers have discovered approximately 175 notebooks dating back to 1894 when Picasso was 13.  Picasso filled eight notebooks alone with sketches for one painting--Les Demoiselles d'Avignon-- which became one of his most famous and was seminal in the development of cubism and modern art.  Furthermore, the artistic ideas, themes, and techniques expressed in Demoiselles were developed in earlier notebooks.  From an early age, any surface was an opportunity to draw or paint on.  You might say Picasso was using his notebooks to prototype.  In Creating Minds, Howard Gardner describes Picasso's notebook activity as
a compulsion to experiment--to try out varied compositional arrangements, to draw the same object form diverse angles, and to capture contrasting emotions, including ones that were highly evocative and dramatic.
The first public exhibition of some of Picasso's notebooks was called Je suis un cahier--roughly "I am a notebook."

Darwin.  Darwin was a prolific notebook writer and recorded quotes, fleshed out new ideas, criticized and analyzed ideas, and sometimes just free-associated.  He re-read his notes to make new connections and draw conclusions.  He was also part of one of the last generations of commonplacers.


Because the act of writing (like speaking) is an act of thinking.  To write is to articulate--literally meaning to join together-- ideas in the form of words.  I don't know what I think until I see what I write, or in Picasso's case until I see what I sketch.  The inventiveness of journals derives from the primordial technology of language.

Notebooks support all the other innovation techniques.  You can brainstorm ideas in a informal way--just start a new note or append to an existing one (if this is a digital notebook).  Ideas can be prototyped and simulated in words to be followed later by physical prototypes.   A experiment is an ideas that itself often has to be carefully designed and worked before its can be conducted.  Notebooks provide the support.

Notebooks nurture the slow hunch, the gradual and delicate development of an infant idea.

Notebooks provide a good balance between structure and freedom.  Lastly, notebooks because of their lack of structure, provide the freedom and space to record ideas that might not fit into some other formal structure.  Too much structure can be a Procrustean bed, prematurely killing off the idea.  They are a great capturing framework.  In order to innovate, one needs to capture ideas that are interesting and where the connection is either not present or tenuous.  Later, as one re-reads or continues to take notes, the captured idea fits into the larger framework of a discovery.

Notebooks and writing is a cheap and easy form of simulation.  You don't build something. This is both its strength and its limitation.

(Facts from this blog post were derived from Steven Johnson's, Where Good Ideas Come From and Howard Gardner's Creating Minds.

1 comment:

  1. The best ideas are ephemeral in the beginning. A notebook is a vital tool to make them manifest. Ever since I heard Jim Rohn first suggest having a journal, I've kept my notebook close by as a treasure to mark golden nuggets each day. On top of your suggestions here, when we keep a notebook, we give a gift of a legacy for our children to view into a different perspective of their history.