Isaac Asimov on Creativity

In 1959, Isaac Asimov was briefly part of a panel tasked with “out-of-the-box” brainstorming about weapons technology. He very quickly recused himself from this, but before he left he wrote an essay advising the panel about the nature of creativity and creative people.

Who is creative?

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.

Should creative people think alone or in groups?

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.

Okay, so creative people tend to think up ideas alone. But should they then get together to share those ideas, and if so, how?

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 the unusual combination A-C, it may well be that the combination A-B-C, which neither has thought of separately, may yield an answer.

I am no Isaac Asimov, but I’ll give my two cents on my own creative process. Step one is to take in a lot of information and ideas, in somewhat random combinations. For me, reading is the best way to do this, although other forms of media and more formal education can be helpful. This takes a lot of time, time that I certainly don’t have when working a 9 to 5 job and supporting a (wonderful) family. The job and family also tend to physically and mentally wear me out, and some of the bullies and unimaginative types I encounter on the job not only shut down my creativity but the creativity of everyone around me. Then there is the fact that, as Isaac mentions in his essay, whoever is paying you is unlikely to be sympathetic to the idea they are paying you to screw around.

Anyway, there have been a couple times in my life when I have had the time to just sit and think and screw around a little bit. So along with the steady inflow of information and ideas, there has to be some unstructured downtime, and that is when the creative ideas pop into my mind. Exercise, drugs and music may be helpful in moderation, although you could obviously overdo the drugs. Insights are unpredictable and fleeting, so it is critical to have a notebook or the electronic equivalent to capture them.

Step three is to take those brilliant snippets of ideas from the notebook and do the hard work of turning them into something, whether it is a book, a computer program, an artwork, or whatever. I find that this process is not all that creative. It is just work. But it is the critical step of taking your insights that last mile to a fully formed, coherent story that other human beings might gain something from.

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