Steven Johnson on How We Make Important Decisions

Walter Isaacson sits down with bestselling author Steven Johnson to discuss his latest book “Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter Most.”

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: Many of the issues on this show are complex and problematic, with consequences that play out over years and generations. Our next guest says the best way to approach any long-term decision is both an art and a science. Best-selling author Steven Johnson is an expert of the history of innovation. His latest book is “Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions that Matter Most.” And he told our Walter Isaacson how to grapple with our biggest dilemmas, whether they’re personal, professional, or civic issues affecting entire societies.


WALTER ISAACSON: Steven, welcome to the show.

STEVEN JOHNSON, AUTHOR, “FARSIGHTED”: Thank you. Great to be here.

ISAACSON: So you’ve always written about creativity, innovation, now decision-making. What is it that causes somebody to be creative?

JOHNSON: Well, you know, that’s been the great kind of mystery of my research, overall, of these books, is trying to figure it out. And I’ve written about so many different topics. You know, I’ve written about cholera and video games and neuroscience and all these things. But as you say, there’s a shared common thread that runs through the whole body of work of “where did these transformative ideas come from.” When the world changes because of some spark in someone’s mind, how does it happen? And you know, the biggest thing that I feel is that our language for describing innovation is all wrong and that we have this incredibly rich set of metaphors to describe a moment of sudden inspiration –

ISAACSON: A light bulb moment.

JOHNSON: – that a single person has – you know, the lone genius has in a flash of inspiration. I mean, just think of, like you say, a light bulb moment, a eureka moment, aha moment, epiphany. Like there’re so many words for this phenomenon. And it’s – it’s part of the story, for sure, but the most transformative ideas I think actually take a different form in that they are much slower and kind of evolutionary, in a sense. I call them “slow hunches,” right. They start with this feeling of something being interesting, but you’re not really sure why, or there’s something that’s kind of playfully curious, delightful, for some reason, and you’re drawn to it, but you can’t put our finger on it. And they stay in that state for really long periods of time, and it’s often through collaboration with someone else or through a network of people that what is only a fragment or hunch in your own mind becomes something that is really usable or actionable in the world. And it’s a combination of slow hunches and networks instead of kind of lone genius and eureka moments.

ISAACSON: How important is diversity to creativity?

JOHNSON: I think this is a really important thing to stress in this day in age, which is, if you think about it, we have the most diverse new incoming Congress in history, in terms of gender, in terms of age, crucially, which is a big part of it. When we celebrate things like that, we often are saying, you know, we like this because it’s a sign of equality of opportunity, or it’s a sign that these groups of leaders will be more tolerant of this, more representative of the country as a whole. But I think this is another point, which is, just from the science, we know they will make better choices, and that the – that as a body they will be smarter. It’s another argument against gerrymandering, right. When you – when you take those voting blocks and make them all of like- minded people, you actually kind of reduce the collective IQ of that group, and they’ll make worse voting decisions, in a sense.

ISAACSON: In your latest book, “Farsighted,” which is now out and I assume coming out in paperbacks –


ISAACSON: – one of the favorite examples, I think, is the beginning of your book, which is Charles Darwin deciding whether or not to marry.

JOHNSON: You know, it – I first come across this passage in Darwin’s journals when I was writing where good ideas come from about innovation, which had a whole long riff about Darwin’s notebook, as Darwin kept these wonderful notebooks all of his life. But they’re particularly interesting during the late 1830s, as he’s coming up with the theory of natural selection, because you can see this idea, maybe the most important scientific idea of the 19th century forming on the page. And he argues with himself, and he does all these amazing things. So I was – you know, I spent a lot of time reading through his journals for that book. And from that research, I stumbled across this hilarious little kind of interruption in the middle of his journals, where he takes time off from debating, you know, how natural selection came about, and starts weighing this other question, which is, should he get married. And he creates basically a pros and cons list. On the – on the side of against marrying, he had things like, he’s afraid he’s going to give up the conversation of clever men in clubs. And on the side of for marrying, he has things like wanting to have children, but he also has a line that’s something like, an object to be beloved better than a dog anyhow. So it’s not quite – it hasn’t aged quite as well as maybe what we want. But what struck me about it was, this is the – the pros and cons list is the one technique that most of us learn in our lives to make a complicated decision. If Darwin I doing it in 1837, 1838, that means basically we’re using a tool that’s at least almost two centuries old, probably older. And surely the technology and the strategies have advanced since then. And so, I thought it would be interesting to go and look at the science that’s out there and also to think about the ways in which it connects to the innovation work. Because in a sense when you’re making a complicated life decision, whether it’s a work decision or a personal decision, it’s a — in some ways it’s about creativity, right? It’s about imagining some new alternative and not just taking the path that’s right in front of you.

ISAACSON: And thinking out of the box when necessary.


ISAACSON: Ben Franklin did it too in a slightly more sophisticated way–

JOHNSON: Yes. As you have written about, I think it’s one of the things that’s so great about Franklin is that it’s so important to our history as a country is that one of our founding fathers really kind of invented the self help genre. And he called it moral algebra. And he basically described a pros and cons list. But the key thing that Franklin did, that was more advanced is that he had a kind of rudimentary sense of what we call waiting, right? So that when you create a pros and cons list, some of the things on the list are more important than others, right? Presumably for Darwin having children was more important than the conversation of (inaudible), presumably, maybe. Who does with Darwin? And so what Franklin advised is make the list up and then cross out the ones on either side that are of equal weight or equal importance to you and so, most of us don’t do that actually. So, in a way the science for most of us of making a complex decision or the tools we use have actually gone backwards since Franklin wrote that note.

ISAACSON: Explain how that system worked in something like President Obama’s decision to try to take out Osama bin Laden?

JOHNSON: We tend to celebrate the results of great decisions, but we don’t tend to actually focus on the process that led to those results. And the decision to execute the raid on bin Laden’s lair in Pakistan is just a wonderful example of a nine month process. One of the big things they had to figure out was is the mysterious figure in this compound, is this actually bin Laden? And so they had the team come up with as many possible explanations of who this person could possibly be. No interpretation was too silly. In fact, many of them are quite silly. And then later in the process, once they had decided that bin Laden was there that they thought bin Laden was there. Then the question was what should they do about it? Should they just blow up the compound, should they ask the Pakistanis for permission and all that stuff. And they went through a very rigorous process of what’s sometimes called scenario planning where you’re kind of imagining possible outcomes and challenging your assumptions. And not just assuming that everything will work as planned. And one of the things that they came up with which is brand I think in this process was they rigorously tried to think about how could this go wrong? And one thought was that if they did and — what they ended up doing, the helicopter raid unannounced through Pakistani airspace that the Pakistanis would be so angry at the U.S. for doing this that they would abject them from all of Pakistan. And that would — Pakistan was a primary supply route to get in to the war in Afghanistan at this point. Months before the raid, they actually opened up a second kind of access route around Pakistan in to Afghanistan just on the off chance if that happened. And it’s that kind of long-term thinking and the challenging of assumptions and that kind of decision process that I think is what we should be seeking out in our — and celebrating in our leaders, right? I mean you never see at a presidential debate anybody ask, so what is your process for making a complex decision? How do you weigh the evidence, where do you seek for advice, what kind of team do you get around, team of rivals kind of plus, like that’s never really a question. But that may be the most important thing to ask of our leaders in a way.

ISAACSON: Well, now we’re sort of at the other extreme. If you ask President Trump that, he would say I do it on gut, I do it on instinct. I sort of do it by my feelings. Is there a virtue in that approach as well?

JOHNSON: There are plenty of things in life where you want to go with your gut, including maybe getting married. I mean, I think most of us shouldn’t like draw up a spread sheet to kind of decide to get married. But there are many ways in which our gut can fail us with a complex decision, where there are lots of variables. But I will say this, that — and this is one of the great findings I think from recent neuroscience. Years ago in the early days of brain imaging technology, the kind of pat scans and FMRI scans. When these new tools arrived that enabled us to san the brain and show where activity was happening in the brain in kind of almost real-time. All these neuroscientist were so excited because they were like look, finally we can figure out, you know, what part of the brain lights up when you are looking at people’s faces and what part lights up when you’re doing mental arithmetic or whatever it is. So they did all these scans but it turned out to be able to make sense of those scans they had to look at the brain at rest. They had to look at the brain not thinking about anything. And so they put people in these scanners and they said OK, now look at faces or do mental math. And then they did a second scan and they said don’t — don’t anything. Just sit there. And what kept happening was that the scans where people were not supposed to be doing anything turned out to be more active than the scans where they were given a task. And they were more active in the evolutionary modern parts of the brain. The most human parts of the brain. And what they realized that people were doing, eventually, is that they were day dreaming. And they were doing kind of mental simulations of the future without even realizing it and they were doing these rapid fire, sometimes it’s called cognitive time travel, where you kind of get in that state where you think well, next week if I ask for that raise and then maybe I could get that — we could put down that — that down payment on that new apartment. And then what would happen if we give up — and then you start running these little scenarios in your head and we now think that that kind of day dreaming or mind wondering is a crucial part of human intelligence. And the lesson of that, I think, is that you want to leave time in your life for that kind of day dreaming, for that kind of mind wandering. You can’t have a screen in front of you and have that kind of mind wandering. You can’t be listening to a podcast. You — you have to be free to kind of let your mind roam a little bit. And that — that part of our instincts, in a sense, our intuition is very important.

ISSACSON: It’s wonderful because everybody from Leonardo Da Vinci to Einstein always believed that day dreaming and procrastination was so important to creativity and now you’ve proved it.

JOHNSON: Well, you know it was originally discovered by this neuroscientist, Nancy Andreasen, who had had a background in — in poetry, actually. All these other scientists were looking at these scans and saying our machine must be broken. You know. But she said no, no. I know that when I’m in that kind of daydreaming state, my brain is working very hard. This is — this is what it must be.

ISSACSON: And it probably is what separates us from other species is this ability to daydream about the future.

JOHNSON: I think that the — the evidence is that even our closest relatives and you know primates and other mammals have a very limited sense of the future at all. And so the ability to move back and forth in — in – – in rapid succession from recent past to near term or long term future that may be as important in some ways as language itself. And it may be a part of our capacity as a species for innovation.

ISSACSON: Whenever I try to either be innovative or make a decision and try to be farsighted, I’ll hit a blind spot. A blind spot, obviously I don’t know it’s a blind spot because I can’t see it. What’s your life hack for avoiding blind spots?

JOHNSON: And this is one of the things that we don’t, I think, talk about enough as kind of historians of technology and of ideas are the people who got really close to a break through idea but failed to see something. So in — in “How We got to Now,” the show and book that I did, we talked about this great kind of failed inventor. He was a French inventor who invented in the 1850s a device for recording audio. Breakthrough device 25 years ahead of Edison. But you never heard of this guy because he failed to include one feature, which was playback. Right. That you could record the audio but you couldn’t hear the audio you had recorded. And this turns out to be a highly sought after feature in people purchasing audio equipment as they like to able to hear it. And he — it wasn’t that he wanted to add that feature, he — it was so thoroughly in his blind spot that he — he never even imagined it. He was trying to build an automated dictation machine basically. And he thought if you could record the scribble of kind of sound waves that people would learn to read that language and you could speak into it and you would have kind of an automated shorthand.

ISSACSON: And so you’d see the scribbles but you wouldn’t hear the playback and .

JOHNSON: He just thought well, if we can read alphabets, we can — we’ll be able to read sound waves, which was actually a pretty good bet. It just turns out unfortunately humans can’t read sound waves and to this day they can’t read sound waves.

ISSACSON: But I suspect if he had hung around musicians, a musician could have told him hey, we want playback.

JOHNSON: That’s to me where the diversity piece and the — and the — and the idea of the blind spot are — are so connected to each other is that the — what somebody who has different — literally a different angle perspective on the problem, they’re much more likely to see around the blind spot. And — and when you look at — when you look at people who have been, you know, great innovators, you know we like to kind of condense it down into this story of this one, you know, person. And there are some true geniuses, you know, Da Vinci and so on. But almost always there are people around these — these brain people who — who help them see or compliment their skills. You know bring something else to the table. And — and so part of, you know, teaching people about this when you’re trying to encourage kids or encourage your own kids or students to be creative and to make better decisions in life it’s teaching about them the ability to kind of seek out those complementary talents. Like learn to work well with people who are different from you, and you will end up having a more creative and more satisfying career.

ISAACSON: Steve, thank you very much for being with us.

JOHNSON: Thanks so much.

About This Episode EXPAND

Christiane Amanpour speaks with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and journalist Yonit Levi about the complex state of affairs in Israeli politics; and discusses protecting journalists with Joel Simon, Executive Director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. Walter Isaacson speaks with Steven Johnson, author of “Farsighted,” about how we make the decisions that matter most.