Don’t just read front to back

The Innovators by Walter Isaacson shows just how unpredictable progress can be.

Many of the best non-fiction books are thick and filled with many stories, facts and chains of wisdom. Reading them front to back can be delicious but also off-putting. You can get bogged down, distracted, put a book down, perhaps forever. Opening a book randomly and reading a few pages can deliver little slices of insight.

Over the last few days I have been dipping into The Innovators by Walter Isaacson, who also wrote about Einstein and Steve Jobs. He has also been showing up on end of year news shows on TV. He always expands the context of the question the interviewer asks and tends to have a wonderfully quirky sense of whatever the interviewer thinks is important.

This book is about the creators of computers and the Internet–the quirky geniuses who worked in a universities, the private sector, government, bedrooms and garages. The big lesson: despite all their quirkiness, they collaborated. Environments that fostered creativity were a big help. This includes US government policy crafted over decades.

Some of the stories and facts I knew, some I didn’t. This is the kind of book you could read many times and still learn from, not only from the rich material but also from the insights of the author.

Here is one theme: Many of these technical people got key insights far from their technical fields–from art, music, old books, odd early schooling like the Montessori method, athletic pursuits, and parents who supported and challenged them in unusual ways. Somehow they blended their independent mindedness with an ability to find the right collaborators. Some blended theory with the practicality needed to create and grow businesses.

Read a few pages at random and you will learn a lot. In fact, this ability to dip into knowledge in non-hierarchical, semi-random way is one of the principles of the Web. It is also one of the principles of innovation itself. Go figure.

Rant: When you read these stories and if you are lucky enough to know people who do these types of remarkable things, you realize that the pursuit of knowledge (curiosity) — and indeed any kind of personal growth — for its own sake is the root of much of the practical stuff that the world later comes to rely on. Government policies that don’t recognize this simple fact jeopardize the future.

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