Isaac Asimov on creativity

A previously unpublished essay on creativity by renowned sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov, written for the government agency ARPA in the 1950s, has just seen the light of day. Click here to read the whole thing. I’ve highlighted two short lists from his wonderful essay, with snippets from the article, which is worth the full read.


Essential characteristics of creative people:

The ability to connect seemingly unrelated things

…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.

The ability to randomly connect dots is a hallmark of creative thinking. Many of us do this in our own minds, few of us are willing to entertain such thoughts, and fewer still to share them.

The eccentricities of self-assurance

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. 

See above re: sharing. it takes confidence to drop non-sequiturs on your friends on a regular basis. I’ve gotten so I like watching people’s reactions to my random pop culture, literary and theology references. Every once in a while, somebody understands what I’m saying.

Lots of discretionary thinking time

…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 presence of others can only inhibit this process, since creation is embarrassing.

The most difficult thing. When you manage people and go to lots of meetings, you must schedule time to be alone. And then stick to it. No, really.

Essential characteristics of a creative setting:

A safe environment

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…

Notice his word “foremost.” If you don’t feel relaxed with your co-workers, you can go no further in creativity. It begins and ends with a sense of teamwork and safety.

Without any stiflers

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.

Asimov has several other notes here about creative team sessions, which closely parallel a chapter on the same topic that my co-author Jason Moore and I wrote in Taking Flight with Creativity, for example the ideal number of people on a creative team.

Freedom from tasks and responsibilities

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.

What other characteristics do you think are necessary for creativity in people and environments?

About the Author

Len Wilson

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Christ follower. Storyteller. Strategist. Writer. Creative Director at St Andrew. Tickle monster. Author, Think Like a Five Year Old (Abingdon).