Isaac Asimov Explains the Origins of Good Ideas & Creativity in Never-Before-Published Essay


“Isaac Asi­mov on Throne” by Rowe­na Mor­rill via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

Where do ideas come from? The ques­tion has always had the poten­tial to plague any­one try­ing to do any­thing worth­while at any time in human his­to­ry. But Isaac Asi­mov, the mas­sive­ly pro­lif­ic and even more mas­sive­ly influ­en­tial writer of sci­ence fic­tion and sci­ence fact, had an answer. He even, in one 1959 essay, laid out a method, though we, the gen­er­al pub­lic, haven’t had the chance to read it until now. The MIT Tech­nol­o­gy Review has just pub­lished his essay on cre­ativ­i­ty in full, while pro­vid­ing a few con­tex­tu­al­iz­ing remarks from the author’s friend Arthur Ober­may­er, a sci­en­tist who invit­ed Asi­mov on board an “out of the box” mis­sile-defense research project at an MIT spin­off called Allied Research Asso­ciates.

“He expressed his will­ing­ness and came to a few meet­ings,” remem­bers Ober­may­er, but “he even­tu­al­ly decid­ed not to con­tin­ue, because he did not want to have access to any secret clas­si­fied infor­ma­tion; it would lim­it his free­dom of expres­sion. Before he left, how­ev­er, he wrote this essay on cre­ativ­i­ty as his sin­gle for­mal input.” When Ober­may­er found it among his old files, he “rec­og­nized that its con­tents are as broad­ly rel­e­vant today as when [Asi­mov] wrote it” in 1959, describ­ing as they do “not only the cre­ative process and the nature of cre­ative peo­ple but also the kind of envi­ron­ment that pro­motes cre­ativ­i­ty.” Whether you write sci-fi nov­els or do mil­i­tary research, make a web series, or work on cur­ing Ebo­la, you can put Asi­mov’s meth­ods to use.

Asi­mov first inves­ti­gates the ori­gin of ideas by look­ing to The Ori­gin of Species. Or rather, he looks to what you find with­in it, “the the­o­ry of evo­lu­tion by nat­ur­al selec­tion, inde­pen­dent­ly cre­at­ed by Charles Dar­win and Alfred Wal­lace,” two men who “both trav­eled to far places, observ­ing strange species of plants and ani­mals and the man­ner in which they var­ied from place to place,” both “keen­ly inter­est­ed in find­ing an expla­na­tion for this,” and both of whom “failed until each hap­pened to read Malthus’s ‘Essay on Pop­u­la­tion.’ ” He finds that “what is need­ed is not only peo­ple with a good back­ground in a par­tic­u­lar field, but also peo­ple capa­ble of mak­ing a con­nec­tion between item 1 and item 2 which might not ordi­nar­i­ly seem con­nect­ed.” Evo­lu­tion­ary the­o­ry seems obvi­ous only in ret­ro­spect, he con­tin­ues, as

The his­to­ry of human thought would make it seem that there is dif­fi­cul­ty in think­ing of an idea even when all the facts are on the table. Mak­ing the cross-con­nec­tion requires a cer­tain dar­ing. It must, for any cross-con­nec­tion that does not require dar­ing is per­formed at once by many and devel­ops not as a “new idea,” but as a mere “corol­lary of an old idea.”

It is only after­ward that a new idea seems rea­son­able. To begin with, it usu­al­ly seems unrea­son­able. It seems the height of unrea­son to sup­pose the earth was round instead of flat, or that it moved instead of the sun, or that objects required a force to stop them when in motion, instead of a force to keep them mov­ing, and so on.

A per­son will­ing to fly in the face of rea­son, author­i­ty, and com­mon sense must be a per­son of con­sid­er­able self-assur­ance. Since he occurs only rarely, he must seem eccen­tric (in at least that respect) to the rest of us. A per­son eccen­tric in one respect is often eccen­tric in oth­ers.

Con­se­quent­ly, the per­son who is most like­ly to get new ideas is a per­son of good back­ground in the field of inter­est and one who is uncon­ven­tion­al in his habits. (To be a crack­pot is not, how­ev­er, enough in itself.)

Once you have the peo­ple you want, the next ques­tion is: Do you want to bring them togeth­er so that they may dis­cuss the prob­lem mutu­al­ly, or should you inform each of the prob­lem and allow them to work in iso­la­tion?

The essay puts forth an argu­ment for iso­la­tion (“Cre­ation is embar­rass­ing. For every new good idea you have, there are a hun­dred, ten thou­sand fool­ish ones, which you nat­u­ral­ly do not care to dis­play”) and a set of best prac­tices for group idea gen­er­a­tion, as imple­mentable in the Allied Research Asso­ciates of the 1950s as in any orga­ni­za­tion today. If you can’t trust Asi­mov on this sub­ject, I don’t know who you can trust, but con­sid­er sup­ple­ment­ing this new­found essay with Ze Frank’s the­mat­i­cal­ly relat­ed video “Brain Crack” (lin­guis­ti­cal­ly NSFW, though you can watch the PG ver­sion instead), which deals, in an entire­ly dif­fer­ent sen­si­bil­i­ty, with the ques­tion of where ideas come from:

via io9

Relat­ed Con­tent:

David Lynch Explains How Med­i­ta­tion Enhances Our Cre­ativ­i­ty

Mal­colm McLaren: The Quest for Authen­tic Cre­ativ­i­ty

Isaac Asi­mov Pre­dicts in 1964 What the World Will Look Like Today — in 2014

John Cleese’s Phi­los­o­phy of Cre­ativ­i­ty: Cre­at­ing Oases for Child­like Play

Free: Isaac Asimov’s Epic Foun­da­tion Tril­o­gy Dra­ma­tized in Clas­sic Audio

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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