Isaac Asimov Asks, “How Do People Get New Ideas?”

A few years ago Arthur Obermayer found an essay Isaac Asimov wrote in 1959 on how to foster creativity within a group setting. This essay titled “On Creativity” was published in MIT Technology Review in 2014 and can be accessed via this link.

  • The process of creativity appears to be universal and is often not obvious to the creative individual during the act of creation.
  • A person needs to have a strong background in a particular field and be capable of making connections between two items that are not obviously connected.
  • The process of making and testing these connections requires a person with “daring” and “considerable self-assurance” working in a supportive environment where there is freedom to fail frequently and try again.
  • “For every new good idea you have, there are a hundred, ten thousand foolish ones, which you naturally do not care to display.”

  • During idea formation, a person must be willing “to fly in the face of reason, authority, and common sense.”
  • Once a good idea has been generated and tested, it will seem reasonable, obvious, and inevitable in retrospect.
  • “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.)”

  • When trying to foster creativity in a group of people:
    • They should each be informed of the problem and then first allowed to work in isolation before participating in a group discussion.
    • There should be about 5 people or less and they should be selected to have complementing/non-overlapping expertise.
    • “There must be ease, relaxation, and a general sense of permissiveness.  The world in general disapproves of creativity, and to be creative in public is particularly bad.  If a single individual present is unsympathetic to the foolishness that would be bound to go on at such a session, the others would freeze. The unsympathetic individual may be a gold mine of information, but the harm he does will more than compensate for that. It seems necessary to me, then, that all people at a session be willing to sound foolish and listen to others sound foolish.”

    • The ideal setting would be over dinner at a home or a restaurant in order to foster a “feeling of informality” and “joviality.”
    • In order to avoid a sense of responsibility, the group should be brought together for a two-three day workshop and write a white paper about summarizing their findings about a topic. During this time, there would be several opportunities for meals.
    • The conversation should be guided by a carefully selected “session-arbiter” who “will have to sit there, stirring up the animals, asking the shrewd question, making the necessary comment, bringing them gently back to the point.
    • “Since the arbiter will not know which question is shrewd, which comment necessary, and what the point is, his will not be an easy job.”


See also:

Claude Shannon’s 1952 Lecture on Creative Thinking

R.W. Hamming On Creativity