The Slow Hunch

One of my favorite ideas from the last 10 years is “The Slow Hunch” which my friend Steven Johnson popularized in his book Where Good Ideas Come From. Here is a good summary of the book, and the idea of The Slow Hunch is this:

“World-changing ideas generally evolve over time as slow hunches rather than sudden breakthroughs”

Great thinkers and inventors such as Darwin and Tim Berners-Lee used The Slow Hunch to process big ideas over long periods of time. A kernel of an idea takes root, but doesn’t mature right away — but rather, needs to bump around with other ideas and experiences over time until something profound clicks. In some ways, USV is like an ongoing Slow Hunch — Andy likes to describe USV as “a conversation that’s been going on for 15 years”.

Back when I first read Where Good Ideas Come From, this idea of The Slow Hunch really stuck with me. It’s been there with me for nearly 10 years and I keep coming back to it.

Today, I’m officially renaming this blog The Slow Hunch ( I’ve had these domains (and @theslowhunch) for some time, and have flirted with using them, but have never actually done it — but today I’m flipping the switch.

This blog renaming coincides with a bunch of work we’ve been doing at USV on this general topic. Albert wrote the potential for and importance of tools for networked knowledge here. And “Access to Knowledge” is a pillar of our Thesis 3.0.

For The Slow Hunch to work, information not only needs to be captured, but also revisited and reprocessed over time. In WGICF, Steven talks about the Commonplace Book as a tool used by Darwin and others for this purpose. Like a notebook and scrapbook kept over time, but with the key feature being re-reading as standard practice to help connect ideas over time.

For the most recent USV book club, we read Steven’s newest book, Enemy of All Mankind, and Steven joined us for our group discussion. During that conversation, we revisited the idea of the Slow Hunch, and in particular, how he thinks about the process of building ideas over time. He describes it in terms of turning ideas into “magnets” that can live for a long time, and “catch” other ideas, building up into snowballs over time.

For all the information we consume and produce on a daily basis, we are still lacking simple tools to assemble and package it in ways that produce real knowledge. To give idea fragments the potential to become slow hunches. It’s a huge need and also a huge opportunity.

I first wrote about the need for this kind of thing back in 2010 (Wanted: An Open Commonplace Book). What I pointed out then, and what is still true now, is that our current information universe is fragmented (google docs, email, notion, evernote, browsing history, social media, etc), and what’s really needed is a tool that can help package this all up in a way that’s useful.

Today, tools like RoamResearch and Walling are pioneering connecting old information with new information (a network “graph”). And tools like Memex are indexing your browsing history. (as an aside: all of these require an enormous amount of trust, as networked personal knowledge is both valuable and dangerous)

To me the most promising idea here is user experience and user interface innovations that make it easy, intuitive and fun to link old information to new information, and to revisit it over time in a way that makes sense. Unlocking this at scale will have massive implications not only for personal productivity (and happiness), but for networked knowledge much more broadly (research, news, corporate innovation).

With that, hitting publish on the next chapter of The Slow Hunch here on this blog.

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