Published for the First Time: a 1959 Essay by Isaac Asimov on Creativity | MIT Technology Review

Excellent essay on new ideas, so much so that I’ve basically quoted the entire essay.

This mirrors my views of innovation:

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.

It is only afterward that a new idea seems reasonable. To begin with, it usually seems unreasonable. It seems the height of unreason to suppose the earth was round instead of flat, or that it moved instead of the sun, or that objects required a force to stop them when in motion, instead of a force to keep them moving, and so on.

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. 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.

Asimov points out also the importance of a balance of isolation and group work in generating new ideas

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.

Nevertheless, a meeting of such people may be desirable for reasons other than the act of creation itself.

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 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.

It seems to me then that the purpose of cerebration sessions is not to think up new ideas but to educate the participants in facts and fact-combinations, in theories and vagrant thoughts.

As well as the importance of the environment for discussion, much of which resembles what we have done with URGE (the reading group program back at MIT):

But how to persuade creative people to do so? 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.

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.

If a single individual present has a much greater reputation than the others, or is more articulate, or has a distinctly more commanding personality, he may well take over the conference and reduce the rest to little more than passive obedience. The individual may himself be extremely useful, but he might as well be put to work solo, for he is neutralizing the rest.

The optimum number of the group would probably not be very high. I should guess that no more than five would be wanted. A larger group might have a larger total supply of information, but there would be the tension of waiting to speak, which can be very frustrating. It would probably be better to have a number of sessions at which the people attending would vary, rather than one session including them all. (This would involve a certain repetition, but even repetition is not in itself undesirable. It is not what people say at these conferences, but what they inspire in each other later on.)

via Published for the First Time: a 1959 Essay by Isaac Asimov on Creativity | MIT Technology Review.

The impression I have is that creativity is a rather weak force by itself, easily and actively discouraged in reality, though it has high potential. Thus in order to encourage ideas, we must provide a safe open yet constructive environment for which ideas can foster and grow.

Inspire Talk

A long time ago, when I was a columnist at the Las Vegas CityLife, my editor called me up one day and asked if me if I ever wanted to find out what was in the storm drains under the city. And because I have notoriously poor self-preservation skills, I grabbed a Mag-Lite and headed on down.

What I discovered was that hundreds of people live in those storm drains, beneath these neon-lit streets. Some of them are junkies or gambling addicts or winos. A lot of them are crazy, though it’s hard to tell if madness drove them into the drains or if it found them down there in the dark. Whatever the case, there are a lot of them.

And they survive down there. They pilfer materials from construction sites or the dumpsters behind Home Depot and they build themselves shelters, even tiny houses. They build shelves out of cinderblocks and two-by-fours to hold whatever possessions they’ve managed to keep for themselves. They build beds on stilts, so that when the rains come and flood the drains they don’t get washed away. They survive, and dismal and frightening and miserable as it might be, they make a space for themselves, in a filthy, dirty, spooky place that would look to most of us like the penthouse level of Hell.

That is my definition of innovation.

via Inspire Talk.

HT Minh-tue