Dug Campbell

Isaac Asimov: How Do People Get New Ideas?

Where do ideas come from? It’s a question that’s puzzled mankind throughout history. Ideas are the fuel of innovation, with creativity being a somewhat indefinable skill that has been lauded, misunderstood and yearned for in equal measure over the years.

Whether it’s evidenced by a natural ability to paint masterpieces or in the regular application of inventive thinking to solve problems, most people would agree that creativity is “a good thing”. As a result, it’s common to find people attempting to somehow replicate the conditions from which creativity once sprang forth, a form of eternal search by mankind for the secret recipe.

Recently, a previously-unpublished essay from 1959 by acclaimed science fiction writer Isaac Asimov surfaced in which he looked precisely at this issue. When one of the most prolific writers in human history opines on such matters as creativity, it’s probably worth paying attention.

Asimov points out that it’s very hard to reverse-engineer the process of creativity for a variety of reasons – partly because the process is usually mysterious even to the creator. He suggests that one way forward might be to look at two individuals who discovered the same idea themselves entirely independently and identify any similarities. He uses the example of Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace who both came up with the theory of evolution independently. What attributes and experiences did they share?

Both Darwin and Wallace were extremely well-travelled, which meant that they had each been exposed to a wide range of plants and animals. In addition, both had been inspired by reading ‘An Essay On The Principle of Population’ by Thomas Malthus. Yet that was not sufficient to explain their simultaneous breakthrough. Others must inevitably have been in a similar position – but why had no-one else come up with the theory of evolution before them? Asimov suggests that they not only had a strong background in the field in which they were engaged but critically also that they had both chosen to apply the knowledge gleaned from the Malthus essay in a very specific way.

The critical ability that Asimov identifies is the rare ability to connect the dots in such a unique way. Logically, doing so is a difficult task – if it had been simple, other people would have discovered the theory of evolution in all probability before they even started thinking about it. And as a diffcult task, with no guarantee of success, the person who is willing to travel down such a path will inevitably be a confident, self-assured and eccentric individual – in the eyes of others at least. Most people, no matter how well travelled, how knowledgeable they might be about their subject, would hesitate before travelling in a direction viewed by others as unreasonable. For example, most would have considered it unreasonable to believe that the world was anything other than flat before Aristotle got involved.

A creative breakthrough in Asimov’s view requires also the overlap of a strong background in the field in question and is far more likely to be achievable in isolation. By its nature, creating something new inevitably involves repeated failure. And failure is far more willingly embraced by those who are unshackled from the self-awareness that comes from being observed by others. Creative people also tend to work continually on problems (consciously or not) around the clock, a process that is hard to fit into the more restrictive formal and planned structure of collaboration.

Yet he’s not entirely negative about a group’s potential to create ideas. Given the right circumstances, creativity can and will thrive when a group of individuals can use the contributions of each to develop ideas that no individual could have contributed on his own. But special consideration must be taken to the dynamic of the personalities within the group. Being creative in public is difficult. It is crucial that each group member must be sympathetic to the suggestions of others in the group. Without exception, everyone must be willing to both sound foolish and to listen to others’ foolishness. Anyone without this attitude must be removed from the group immediately as, irrespective of any brilliant ideas that they may bring, the harm that they inevitably cause to others who modify their behaviour in response will always far exceed their value to the group.

Asimov suggest keeping such creative groups small, with no more than five people involved. His view is that bigger groups will invariably introduce damaging tension as individuals are forced to wait for longer before talking whilst more people contribute. These ‘ideas sessions’ must be lighthearted in order to encourage others to join in the “folly of creativeness”, with an informal setting far more productive than a conference room. Finally, the sessions should be co-ordinated by someone who has the ability to ask questions which cause people to consider their existing experiences in a new light so that they can see them in a new light.

Asimov’s advice is old but valuable. Personally, I find it hard to believe that humans will ever truly uncover that ‘secret sauce’ behind creativity that unlocks the talent behind the imagination, ingenuity and inspiration that produces what we view as cultural highlights today. Those cultural standards may (and must) of course evolve over time. But to the extent that any output of creative thinking can be objectively assessed, there’s no doubt that the advance of technology will come into play. After all what is the indexation of all existing human knowledge across a global network if not a way to trial all possible permutations between our collected knowledge at increasing speeds? And I wouldn’t be surprised if Asimov was thinking something along those lines some 50+ years ago.


PS Yes, I know today is Christmas Day. I’d like to claim that I was organised enough in advance that this was pre-written but I did actually spend this evening reading and writing this post. There’s only so many times you can watch ‘Morecambe & Wise’ re-runs, after all.