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Ideas not going anywhere? Try these 5 tips on creativity from Isaac Asimov

Isaac Asimov.
Isaac Asimov.
(Universal Images Group/Getty)

Over 50 years ago, Isaac Asimov, the prolific science-fiction author, wrote an essay on creativity.

It was published for the first time this week, and it's a must-read.

As scientist Arthur Obermayer, who was a friend of Asimov, explained in an introduction to the essay, he only recently found Asimov's "On Creativity" while he was cleaning out some old files. And even though, says Obermayer, the essay was written half a century ago, "its contents are as broadly relevant today as when he wrote it."

As Obermayer explains, while he was working as a scientist in Boston, he came to be involved with an agency that sought "to elicit the most creative approaches possible for a ballistic missile defense system." He suggested Asimov join the group, as well, but after Asimov attended a few meetings, he decided not to participate, since he didn't want his freedom of expression limited by any secret information he might have learned. Before leaving the group, Asimov penned "On Creativity," which was his only contribution to the project.

You can — and should — read the complete essay in the MIT Technology Review. For now, here are five of Asimov's ideas on how creativity happens.

1) Creativity requires you to connect two unconnected ideas

Consider the theory of evolution by natural selection, independently created by Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace.

There is a great deal in common there. Both traveled to far places, observing strange species of plants and animals and the manner in which they varied from place to place. Both were keenly interested in finding an explanation for this, and both failed until each happened to read Malthus's "Essay on Population."

Both then saw how the notion of overpopulation and weeding out (which Malthus had applied to human beings) would fit into the doctrine of evolution by natural selection (if applied to species generally).

Obviously, then, 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.

2) True creativity is only reasonable in retrospect

Thomas H. Huxley is supposed to have exclaimed after reading On the Origin of Species, "How stupid of me not to have thought of this."

But why didn't he think of it? 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.

3) Sometimes it's best to brainstorm by yourself

My feeling is that as far as creativity is concerned, isolation is required. The creative person is, in any case, continually working at it. His mind is shuffling his information at all times, even when he is not conscious of it. (The famous example of Kekule working out the structure of benzene in his sleep is well-known.)

The presence of others can only inhibit this process, since 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.

4) But a lot of creativity happens in collaborative environments!

No two people exactly duplicate each other's mental stores of items. One person may know A and not B, another may know B and not A, and either knowing A and B, both may get the idea-though not necessarily at once or even soon.

Furthermore, the information may not only be of individual items A and B, but even of combinations such as A-B, which in themselves are not significant. However, if one person mentions the unusual combination of A-B and another unusual combination A-C, it may well be that the combination A-B-C, which neither has thought of separately, may yield an answer.

5) Innovation happens when people are encouraged to discuss their wildest ideas without having to worry about looking silly

First and foremost, 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. Even to speculate in public is rather worrisome. The individuals must, therefore, have the feeling that the others won't object.

… It seems necessary to me, then, that all people at a session be willing to sound foolish and listen to others sound foolish.

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