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Isaac Asimov Shares His Secrets To Creativity

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asimiovIsaac Asimov is one of the most prolific writers in history. The guy wrote and/or edited over 500 books in 9 of the 10 classifications of the Dewey Decimal system. Upon realizing how much he wrote — while he was also teaching (at Boston University, where I happen to teach) and doing other things — two questions spring immediately to mind: where did he find the time, and where did he find the ideas? As to the first question, the only logical conclusion is that Asimov was a robot. It makes sense, doesn’t it? He was writing his famous robot stories from experience. As for the other question, a newly released essay that Asimov wrote back in 1959 provides some answers.

One of Asimov’s friends, Arthur Obermayer, worked for an MIT spinoff called Allie Research Associates. The organization was initially founded to conduct antimissile research, specifically how aircraft structures might be impacted by nuclear weapons (this question must not have been as obvious as it seems). They were commissioned by ARPA — DARPA without the “Defense” — to brainstorm approaches for ballistic missile defense. Obermayer drafted Asimov, who came to a few meetings but ultimately wasn’t comforted with how much classified information he’d be privy to (yet another strong piece of evidence of the man’s intelligence). But he did write an essay on creativity and how to get new ideas.

You can read the whole essay here, but these are the main points/suggestions he makes.

Creativity is difficult to define, and trying to figure out a good strategy for being creative is also tough. A lot of inventors and creators can’t really pinpoint how their ideas came to be. Asimov argues that a number of ingredients comprise creativity: travel, observation, interest, skepticism, and curiosity, for starters. He talks about the necessity of being able to make connections between ideas — or, as he calls it, “cross-connection” between various ideas. Daring is a major component, because without daring, a thought is a “corollary of an old idea” rather than a new idea. Daring requires the ability to challenge reason, common sense, and authority, which means that someone who possesses daring must also possess self-assurance; eccentricity and unconventionality don’t hurt either.

Asimov advocates working in teams of people who have the aforementioned qualities. One question he poses is whether it’s better to work together, or for each person to go off on his own and work. Asimov believes that “isolation is required,” especially since the presence of others can be both distracting and limiting, since the road to good ideas is paved with bad, even embarrassing ones. Still, he advocates collaboration and meetings not for the act of creation, but for brainstorming and increasing the chances of cross-connections, “educat[ing] the participants in fact and fact-combinations, in theories and vagrant thoughts.”

But the way creative people meet is important, he said. He advocates, “ease, relaxation, and a general sense of permissiveness,” given that public creativity is rare and sometimes discouraged, as is speculation. Everyone needs to be okay with bandying around ideas that most other people would find foolish. Asimov also warns against having one person who’s more of an expert or has a greater reputation — no one should dominant the group.

He says that such a group should be capped at five people, which allows for many ideas, but doesn’t require people to wait for a long time before they get a chance to voice them. He says that having different configurations of people at a series of meetings would help, and that the meetings should be as informal and jovial as possible to facilitate the “folly of creativeness.” He also discourages use of conference rooms in favor of living rooms or restaurants.

Another limiting factor is payment, and the guilt and responsibility associated with payment. If one feels like he’s wasting time and/or money, the guilt starts to seep in, which inhibits creativity. If money’s involved, Asimov suggests paying participants for discrete tasks, such as writing summaries or memos, rather than for the thinking or the actual creative work.

His final suggestion is to get a ringleader, someone whose role is similar to that of a psychoanalyst. By that he means someone who’s really good at asking meaty questions, but doesn’t otherwise talk a lot. This person would draw out the others and their ideas, as well as make sure the discussion stays relatively on point.

As a writer, it’s hard to relate to some of his points — other than the creating in isolation one, I suppose. But it seems to me what he’s describing is a classroom, with a teacher as session arbiter. In that way, most of his suggestions are as on-point as any I’ve gotten from education experts. In addition to entertaining us with his science fiction, it seems that Asimov himself was a teacher, and he’s still got lessons to offer.

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