While the creative walk can produce new serendipitous combinations of existing ideas in our heads, we can also cultivate serendipity in the way that we absorb new ideas from the outside world. Reading remains an unsurpassed vehicle for the transmission of interesting new ideas and perspectives. But those of us who aren’t scholars or involved in the publishing business are only able to block out time to read around the edges of our work schedule: listening to an audio book during the morning commute, or taking in a chapter after the kids are down. The problem with assimilating new ideas at the fringes of your daily routine is that the potential combinations are limited by the reach of your memory. If it takes you two weeks to finish a book, by the time you get to the next book, you’ve forgotten much of what was so interesting or provocative about the original one. You can immerse yourself in a single author’s perspective, but then it’s harder to create serendipitous collisions between the ideas of multiple authors. One way around this limitation is to carve out dedicated periods where you read a large and varied collection of books and essays in a condensed amount of time. Bill Gates (and his successor at Microsoft, Ray Ozzie) are famous for taking annual reading vacations. During the year they deliberately cultivate a stack of reading material – much of it unrelated to their day-to-day focus at Microsoft – and then they take off for a week or two and do a deep dive into the words they’ve stockpiled. By compressing their intake into a matter of days, they give new ideas additional opportunities to network among themselves, for the simple reason that it’s easier to remember something that you read yesterday than it is to remember something you read six months ago.
From “Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation” by Steven Johnson – Riverhead Books