How to Come Up With an Idea That Will Change the World

Hint: It doesn’t have to be your idea

credit: A24 Films

In Alex Garland’s whip smart sci-fi thriller Ex Machina, a programmer at a large tech company travels to a remote underground compound, far from civilization. There, he meets his company’s mysterious billionaire founder, who shows him an invention with the potential to radically alter human society: An intelligent robot that has achieved consciousness.

The film is wonderful. But there’s an element of this set-up that reflects a common story we tell ourselves about technology — a story that I believe is a myth. I think the tale of the solitary genius, the lone scientist (or artist!) who goes off into the woods and returns, years later, with a once-in-a-generation masterpiece is a fiction. This has never happened in human history. And, I would argue, it never will.

Interestingly, Garland himself made a similar point to me when I interviewed him at a screening in LA after Ex Machina’s release. (Like I said: I’m a huge fan.) There’s no transcription of this conversation available online, so you’ll have to accept my recollection of his response to a question about making the transition from screenwriting to directing. He said something like: “You know, I don’t buy into this cult of the director. The director is just one of the many people working on a film, trying to make it great.”

credit: A24 Films

I’ve thought about this a lot since. I found it quite profound. While his argument was specifically against the pernicious dominance of auteur theory in film criticism, I’d suggest that the point he made was even more expansive and thoughtful. It takes the combined labor of many people to make anything that’s really great. Attributing singular authorship to any kind of creative labor is a perfectly understandable linguistic tick — see how I referred to Ex Machina as being “Alex’s Garland’s” in this piece’s first sentence? — but it doesn’t help us to conceptualize how a masterpiece is made.

Why? Because no solitary genius has ever possessed enough — on her own — to make something wonderful on a world-historic scale. It takes a team. It always has.

So why don’t we like to look at genius this way? We love trying to discern the “real” genius at work in anything great. “Was Steve Jobs the real brains at work behind Apple?” we’ll ask. Or: “Didn’t he steal a bunch of ideas from IBM? What did he actually ‘invent,’ anyway?”

I’d suggest that these aren’t particularly interesting questions. And that by framing the issue in these terms, we obscure how creativity works. We pose questions in the language above — “theft”, the “real brains behind” — because it’s hard to conceptualize how processes of collaboration work. It’s easier to say that Apple “stole” ideas from IBM — or, later on, that Microsoft stole ideas from Apple — than to say that they each contributed different elements to some pretty terrific software. It’s easier to say that Instagram Stories ripped off Snapchat, rather than to say that Instagram took a key feature of what made Snapchat cool (precision impermanence) and reapplied that feature to its own platform. In the Verge interview linked above, Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom puts this point another way: “[It’s] like when Facebook invented the [News] Feed, and every social product was like, ‘That’s an innovation, how do we adapt that to our network?’” We would hesitate to say that Instagram and Snapchat collaborated on what is now Instagram Stories, even though from the perspective of the teenager using those apps, they may as well have.

(As a 34-year-old, I believe my using Snapchat would be against California state law, but this is how people tell me it works.)

But here’s the point: The lack of clear language to describe the process of collaborative genius makes it harder for us to come up with more genius stuff. The best way to make really wonderful things is to look at how other people have made them, and to see if lessons can be learned.

So I’d like to look at a few genuinely world-changing feats of genius collaboration that fall into three basic types:

Communal. Adversarial. Iterative.

Greater love hath no man than this; or, the value of communal genius

credit: HarperCollins

Adam Nicolson’s marvelous book God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible examines, at times sentence-by-sentence, how what might be the most beautiful English poetry ever composed was written by a committee. And not just one committee: The King James Bible employed more writers than the most extravagant of Hollywood blockbusters.

Between 1604 and 1611, 47 individual scholars were commissioned by the king to work on a new official English translation of the Bible. The scholars were divided into six committees, each assigned to a separate section. They took inspiration from William Tyndale’s translation of a hundred years previous. But they also took language from the Geneva Bible, an update of the Tyndale translation from only 50 years earlier. (The Geneva Bible is the one Shakespeare read.) Once completed, these six committees delivered their passages to another committee, which collated and re-edited the various drafts.

“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” That’s the gorgeous phrasing that all those committees crafted for John 15:13. Tyndale’s translation had read, “Greater love than this hath no man, then that a man bestow his life for his friends.” The Geneva version had it as, “Greater love than this hath no man, when any man bestoweth his life for his friends.” The 47 scholars working for King James took the best elements of both, and then improved upon them further.

How did a bureaucracy compose such magnificent poetry? As described by Nicolson, they did it by forced collaboration. Enmeshed in an elaborate, hierarchical organization, they simply had no choice but to come to some sort of agreement. Every word was up for debate, and they spent a long time debating every word. Their disagreements were as much political and theological as they were linguistic. But the pressure was on, and they had no choice but to perform.

I’d suggest that this communal act of genius wouldn’t have been possible without both the pressure-cooker environment they were in, as well as the deadlines they faced and the clear goal they’d been assigned. They couldn’t spend forever tinkering, and at the end of the process, there was going to be a published Bible, one way or another. The king had declared it.

A very similar process of collaboration — essentially locking a bunch of guys in a room for years and under-paying them to make something brilliant — would later be perfected in the industrial laboratories of Thomas Edison.

Only, Edison’s problem was that the devices he produced using this method weren’t all that good.

Edison v. Westinghouse; or, the value of a good adversary

Thomas Edison’s patent drawing and application for an improvement in electric lamps, patented January 27, 1880; Records of the Patent and Trademark Office; Record Group 241; National Archives.

By the late 1870s, scientists had been trying for a century to make a functional, safe, pleasing electric light bulb. Gas lamps were smelly, expensive, and had this unfortunate tendency to light people’s houses on fire. An electric light bulb wasn’t just a good idea — it was an obviously good idea. But some of the smartest people in the world had been working on it for a hundred years with little progress.

Until Thomas Edison came along. Surveying the territory before him, Edison figured out what wasn’t working in earlier attempts at light bulbs. (It was the filament.) Then he hired dozens of low-paid engineers and stuck them in a lab in New Jersey under directions to try every possible kind of filament until they’d found one that functioned properly. It took them about two years, and thousands of different filaments. Finally, it worked.

That’s when things got even more interesting.

credit: Random House Books

I just published a novel called The Last Days of Night about the conflict that ensued. Because this moment of communal invention in Edison’s lab isn’t where the story ends — it’s where it starts.

In 1880, Thomas Edison received a patent on his light bulb. A few years later, George Westinghouse began selling a different design of bulb — a better one. Westinghouse’s bulb lasted longer, was cheaper to produce, and — though this was disputed — it was safer. Edison filed suit against Westinghouse in what I would argue was the most valuable lawsuit in American history. (At the time, one of Edison’s employees suggested it was worth “$1 billion.” In the 1880s.) The question confronting the lawyers on the case: Did George Westinghouse “steal” Edison’s design? Or had Westinghouse improved on it so much that what he was selling could be considered a new thing?

The Supreme Court sided with Edison in 1892. Yet the system of electrical power and distribution that’s powering the screen you’re reading this on right now, as well as the lights above your head — well, that’s Westinghouse’s handiwork. Edison created a very clever device and got exceptionally famous because of it; but Westinghouse created the American electrical system.

How? Well, Westinghouse looked at the light bulbs that Edison was making and decided they just weren’t very good. Westinghouse knew he could do better. So he bought the British patents of the inventors William Sawyer and Albon Man, who’d done earlier work in the field. Then, Westinghouse read of a brilliant demonstration of cutting-edge electrical technology performed by a mysterious, little-known inventor named Nikola Tesla. Westinghouse realized that Tesla had revolutionary ideas about electricity — but hadn’t yet applied those ideas to a functional product. So Westinghouse licensed Tesla’s patents, and brought Tesla on to consult.

Westinghouse then led a team of engineers in a years-long process of combining the work of Sawyer, Man, Tesla and — yes — Edison. The result was the most important invention of the 19th century.

Edison would never give Westinghouse credit for his improvements, and Westinghouse would never give Edison credit for his antecedence. No one gave Tesla much credit for anything. They spent much of their professional life suing each other. (Over the years, Edison and Westinghouse launched over 300 lawsuits at one another.) But their various antipathies and rivalries were just collaborations by another name.

Unlike the translators of the King James Bible, the inventors of the American electrical system were never all in the same room. And yet this process of gradual refinement among different creators, without even so much as a meeting, can be found not just in science, but in songwriting.

You really don’t care for music, do you; or, genius by iteration

credit: Atria Books

The first version of the song “Hallelujah” I ever heard was recorded by Jeff Buckley. One of my college roommates was a fan, and I used to hear the tragic guitar ballad through the walls. As the nights got later, and my friend got mopier, the song would get louder.

So I felt uncharacteristically hip when I heard the song in an episode of The West Wing. I even knew just enough trivia to be able to say it was originally written and recorded by Leonard Cohen, even though I’d never actually heard the original. (This was the early 2000s, when, those of us who were there will remember, one did not have instantaneous access to every piece of music ever recorded.) When I next heard a different cover of the song in the movie Shrek, I felt like the piece had officially been overplayed. Later covers by Rufus Wainwright and seemingly everyone else with the pipes to pull it off meant that every time I was in a bar and some version of the song came on, I could get insufferably pretentious and claim to have liked the Jeff Buckley version better. (It was New York! I was 22! I’m sorry!)

Some years later, I went to a Thanksgiving dinner at the home of my sister’s then-husband. His name is Noel, and he’s Irish. He has brothers. They are also Irish. This was the first Thanksgiving I’d spent with a bunch of Irish guys, which meant that this was my first exposure to the level of devotion Irishmen feel towards Leonard Cohen. Records were placed on repeat. There was whiskey. Everyone sang along. It got kind of intense.

And I heard Leonard Cohen’s original version of “Hallelujah” for the first time. And to my great shock, I discovered that it was very different from Buckley’s, or anyone else’s. Not just in arrangement, but in lyrics and structure. Buckley’s version isn’t just a cover — it’s a complete reimagining.

Alan Light’s magnificent book Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of Hallelujah traces the strange, circuitous path the song takes from Cohen’s original songwriting sessions to the soundtrack of Shrek. (In a recent podcast, Malcolm Gladwell also takes us through this history, providing a terrific summary of Light’s book.) The artistic process that produced the version of the song that was eventually popularized was no less complicated than that surrounding the light bulb, or the King James Bible. It took nearly as many authors.

Cohen spent years working on the song before recording it in 1984. Still dissatisfied with how it had turned out, he would play radically different versions of it on tour. He once told an interviewer that he’d written 80 verses for it, but they never quite seemed to match up properly.

The song was not a hit. When the former Velvet Underground bassist John Cale covered it for a Leonard Cohen tribute album in 1991 — seven years after Cohen’s recording — it wasn’t an obvious selection. And there also wasn’t an obvious blueprint of the song for Cale to follow. Which of Cohen’s versions should he record?

None of them, it turned out. Because what Cale did was to take elements from different Cohen versions — a verse here, a verse there — and then to rearrange the whole thing himself. He slowed the tempo. He changed the key. He tweaked the melody and reimagined the entire feel of the song.

Cale’s version wasn’t a hit either. But when Jeff Buckley heard Cale’s version, he realized how much power the song had hidden within it — and so Buckley changed it yet again. Buckley rearranged Cale’s piano for an electric guitar, and re-worked the pacing yet again, while preserving Cale’s lyrical edits. Buckley wasn’t really covering Cohen; he was covering Cale’s edit/remix of Cohen.

But then the Buckley version wasn’t a hit either. He was still a relatively unknown singer-songwriter when he tragically drowned in 1997. His reputation only grew after his untimely death, and almost a year later, in May of 1998, the song “Hallelujah” finally hit the Billboard charts.

Who was the genius behind “Hallelujah?” Cohen, Cale, or Buckley? I’d suggest all of them. And I’d suggest that like Edison, Westinghouse, and Tesla, they worked in collaboration, despite never having met. Only unlike the inventors of a century earlier, they weren’t competing with each other — they were fans of each other. Cale was trying to pay tribute to Cohen by reworking a song he loved, but thought could be improved. Buckley did the same to Cale. Their edits and remixes weren’t repudiations of one another — they were celebrations.

One of the many people… working to make it great

This essay came about because I’d written a piece for Medium before, and they kindly asked if I’d like to write something for them again. The topic was suggested by my friend Maria, who works for my publisher, Random House. My editor Noah weighed in on themes, over a series of emails, and then he took an editorial pass through this text as well. My researcher Keya fact checked it after I’d finished, finding two historical dates that I’d originally misremembered. Even more fundamentally, my thoughts on this process started with a quote by Alex Garland (my apologies to Garland if my memory mangled his quote). I did no primary source research on the King James Bible — it all comes from Adam Nicolson. Ditto the history of the song “Hallelujah” — that’s all the work of Alan Light. Yet, if you scroll up to the very top of this essay, you’ll find only one name at the top.

The light bulb, the Bible, and even our best pop songs — those are ideas that have changed the world. This essay, to state the obvious, will not. But even something like this — 3,000 words on a website — takes more than any one person’s ideas. And developing better language for discussing the communal nature of creation will help us all not just to understand the debts we owe one another, but also to come up with better ideas in the future.

To learn more or order a copy of The Last Days of Night, visit Graham Moore’s website.