Review by: 

Shahid Bux

American University of Sharjah

[email protected]

Inspiring students to become creative in their studies and to persist in their career goals can be a real challenge for academic advisors. This riveting account by the celebrated writer Steven Johnson illustrates the possibilities by looking at the history of human ingenuity. Rich, lucid and at times amusing, Johnson peers beneath the veneer of what lies behind modern invention, and just how we got to where we are. Johnson achieves this by systematically and thoughtfully dissecting the key figures and history behind the great breakthroughs we now benefit from in the realm of glass, cold, sound, sanitation, time and light.

In one of the most important contributions of the book, the author explains how few of the luxuries we now enjoy such as air conditioning, lighting, and clean water, came in one burst of spontaneous genius, but rather came about through small incremental improvements built on a network of ideas. Advisors often encourage students to expose themselves to diverse experiences and spaces at college, all in order to enrich their college experience and broaden their perspective. Here we see the value and effects of this in raw detail. Birdseye’s frozen food breakthrough started off as a slow hunch and it took the collision of diverse places, experiences and expertise for him to develop the insight he did.

The enrichment of connecting with students from other majors is illustrated no better than in the example of Thomas Edison. Johnson shows how Edison’s genius was misunderstood and in fact his greatest breakthrough lay not in the invention of the lightbulb but in the way in which he assembled a workforce with diverse skills and figured out how to make them creative. College may be the space where students connect with other minds and develop those breakthrough ideas.

This book allows advisors to think more broadly in helping students make sense of their college experience. Not only does it inspire creative success, but it also probes one to consider possibilities never envisaged, to follow one’s passions and persist in the process of realizing them. That is what all the inventors Johnson alludes to did. They all shared the qualities of persistence and resilience, referred to as ‘Grit’ by Angela Duckworth (2016) in her latest account on success. Advisors would do well to inspire and teach this quality to students undergoing academic difficulty. This is illustrated no better than the example of Frederic Tudor in his quest to transport ice from New England to the Caribbean, his struggles, failures and ultimate success.

As the book does not address any issues of immediate relevance to the advising profession, it may be consigned to one’s useful list of summer readings. It can however widen one’s frames of reference, allowing advisors to utilize different strands of knowledge that serve their work. The book is largely a historical survey of innovation and the patterns that shaped past societies – it does not comment on the value of these changes, as the author acknowledges. The account is also tentative in discussing just how learning from past examples of innovation can assist in future ventures. Nonetheless, this remains a rigorous, interdisciplinary portrayal of innovation, of value to advisors working with unmotivated students and/or students in the creative sciences.  


Duckworth, A. (2016). Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. New York: Scribner. 

How We Got to Now (2014). Steven Johnson, Penguin Random House LLC. 289 pp., $18.00, (Paperback). ISBN #978-1-59463-393-5, http://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/about-us/.

Posted in: 2016 Book Reviews
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