In 1959 Issac Asimov wrote an essay on where new ideas come from. It wasn't found until fifty-five years later, when Arthur Obermayer, scientist and friend of Asimov, cleaned out some of his old files. It is as illuminating now as it was then.

In the introduction of the essay, published in full by the MIT Technology Review, Obermeyer explains how this has remained unseen for so long. Obermeyer became involved in a research group funded by the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) "to elicit the most creative approaches possible for a ballistic missile defense system." Obermeyer suggested Asimov, who left the group with concerns that access to classified information would limit his freedom of expression.


The only thing he left was an essay, called "On Creativity," which was never seen outside of the research group. First Asimov asks where new ideas come from, using Darwin and Alfred Wallace as lens to view how just having information was not enough, it was the ability to connect the dots of that knowledge.

The ability to make connections that others miss is called by Asimov a "rare quality" possessed by only those willing to "face of reason, authority, and common sense" and who have the "considerable self-assurance" to do so. Therefore, the rare quality will appear out of sorts to others:

Since he occurs only rarely, he must seem eccentric (in at least that respect) to the rest of us. A person eccentric in one respect is often eccentric in others.

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.)

Once Asimov establishes the type of people able to be creative and find new ideas, he turns to whether they should work alone or in groups. And, if you have a group, how should they work?

Asimov is not a fan of collective creativity:

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.

The purpose of groups, according to Asimov, is to "educate the participants in facts and fact-combinations, in theories and vagrant thoughts" and not to think up new ideas. He also says that, even if a possible participant has the most information, a dismissive or negative attitude would poison the atmosphere of sharing. He also says that an individual of great reputation might dominate the room, and could work equally well on his own.


He advises keeping the group small and, in what I will admit rings the truest to me, adds:

For best purposes, there should be a feeling of informality. Joviality, the use of first names, joking, relaxed kidding are, I think, of the essence—not in themselves, but because they encourage a willingness to be involved in the folly of creativeness. For this purpose I think a meeting in someone's home or over a dinner table at some restaurant is perhaps more useful than one in a conference room.

Probably more inhibiting than anything else is a feeling of responsibility. The great ideas of the ages have come from people who weren't paid to have great ideas, but were paid to be teachers or patent clerks or petty officials, or were not paid at all. The great ideas came as side issues.

To feel guilty because one has not earned one's salary because one has not had a great idea is the surest way, it seems to me, of making it certain that no great idea will come in the next time either.

Not that anyone's creative process is any better or worse than anyone else's, but sitting with a friendly group spitballing ideas, when no idea is too stupid to at least get heard, has always been some of the most stimulating environments for me.

Asimov adds something that has only become more true since he wrote it fifty-five years ago:

Yet your company is conducting this cerebration program on government money. To think of congressmen or the general public hearing about scientists fooling around, boondoggling, telling dirty jokes, perhaps, at government expense, is to break into a cold sweat. In fact, the average scientist has enough public conscience not to want to feel he is doing this even if no one finds out.

Given how science funding is already attacked, can you even imagine the reaction to following Asimov's blueprint?

Read the whole essay here. [via Salon]

Photo Credit: AP Photo/Mario Suriani