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Editorial Sci-Fi News Technology

Isaac Asimov: How Do People Get New Ideas? 150

HughPickens.com writes: Arthur Obermayer, a friend of the Isaac Asimov, writes that he recently rediscovered an unpublished essay by Asimov written in 1959 while cleaning out some old files. Obermayer says it is "as broadly relevant today as when he wrote it. It describes not only the creative process and the nature of creative people but also the kind of environment that promotes creativity." Here's an excerpt from Asimov's essay, which is well worth reading in its entirety:

"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. 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."
A couple more quotes:

"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 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."

"Presumably, the process of creativity, whatever it is, is essentially the same in all its branches and varieties, so that the evolution of a new art form, a new gadget, a new scientific principle, all involve common factors. It is only afterward that a new idea seems reasonable. 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. 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."
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Isaac Asimov: How Do People Get New Ideas?

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  • by Kittenman ( 971447 ) on Tuesday October 21, 2014 @10:18PM (#48200947)
    Not just the common-or-garden Isaac Asimov, but THE Isaac Asimov !!!
  • of the the Dunning Kruger effect which coupled with the present "I wan't to be a genius" narcissism creates a greate many people who behave like geniuses, rather then actually being geniuses.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      And you exemplify it perfectly. Carry on.

    • Who cares? He wasn't writing about genius (or mimicking it), but about creativity and the ability to see relationships or make connections where others haven't.

      intelligence without creativity is a dead end, sterile.

      • by rtb61 ( 674572 )

        A failure to understand humanity. All things have their place in the social cooperative effort that is humanity. Intelligence, common sense and creativity. Creativity comes from people willing to do nothing more than spending a great deal of time sitting and thinking, why because due to genetics their brains directly reward them with desirably brain chemicals for sitting and thinking. However those creative people do need the support of the rest of human society to spend so much time sitting and thinking b

        • by AK Marc ( 707885 ) on Wednesday October 22, 2014 @12:10AM (#48201347)
          Common Sense is the opposite of creativity. Common Sense is generalizing information into convenient packages, without critical thought. That's just common sense is used as a reason to not think. Creativity is ignoring the standard and seeing it as new. Common sense may be useful sometimes, but it's not "creative".
          • by mwvdlee ( 775178 )

            One can't do without the other.
            Common sense is the ability to deal with the necessities of reality that don't interrest you.
            Brilliant artists still usually to go to the toilet; they're not being creative about everything all the time.

            • by AK Marc ( 707885 )
              Common sense is something mostly lacking from the brilliant. The anecdote (no idea if it's true) that Einstein didn't know his home address, and other such stories.
          • by asylumx ( 881307 )
            Not to mention, common sense isn't always common nor sensible!
            • by Whibla ( 210729 )

              Indeed, if anything the remarkable thing about common sense is how remarkably uncommon it is.

              Furthermore, since this is obvious from spending only a small amount of time with just about anyone you meet, this observation is common sense to me.

              • by asylumx ( 881307 )

                Furthermore, since this is obvious from spending only a small amount of time with just about anyone you meet, this observation is common sense to me.

                Great point!

          • Common Sense is the opposite of creativity

            Destruction of art and/or the suppression of ideas is the opposite of creativity. The creative people bring new ideas out of the dark and share them. They use those ideas to create new things. Destructive people suppress new ideas and destroy things.

            Common sense is a tool that "grounds" the creatives and helps keep them from acting on all the wrong ideas (I won't drink the green paint today). It's not the opposite of creativity. It's a help-mate.

            • by AK Marc ( 707885 )
              Common sense says "doing unusual things is dangerous". Common Sense is risk averse to the point of being wrong most of the time. And it's conservative in a way that crushes creativity. "Here's the box of stuff you should know. Don't stray from it" How is that not the opposite of creativity?
        • A failure to understand humanity. All things have their place in the social cooperative effort that is humanity. Intelligence, common sense and creativity. Creativity comes from people willing to do nothing more than spending a great deal of time sitting and thinking, why because due to genetics their brains directly reward them with desirably brain chemicals for sitting and thinking.

          Creativity is the primary problem-solving skill. It's a prerequisite for civilization, not a result of it. The default means of solving problems is to bash it with a rock. Even bash it with a stick required creativity, the first time anyway. After that, good old imitation would do.

          • by rtb61 ( 674572 )

            So how creative was the witch doctor shaman, creative enough to encompass the psychology of placebo treatments to promote recovery in conjunction with herbal remedies. Now how early did that occur in the social evolution of humanity?

      • by GTRacer ( 234395 )
        He was "essay-izing" the plot of his novella, Sucker Bait, written 5 years earlier. Its entire premise is based on a corps of "Mnemonics" who are trained from birth to seek correlations in data. They do this with the full knowledge that these unexpected connections are what drives progress.

        I read the essay yesterday and the first thought I had was, "sounds like that one book of his." God I miss his storytelling...
  • "Little particles of inspiration sleet through the universe all the time traveling through the densest matter in the same way that a neutrino passes through a candyfloss haystack, and most of them miss."

    • Thanks, I was going to post it myself. In terms of understanding human nature I'd place Pratchett over Asimov any day.
  • Bell Labs (Score:4, Interesting)

    by phantomfive ( 622387 ) on Tuesday October 21, 2014 @10:45PM (#48201047) Journal

    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.

    I'd really feel better if he had some actual data here, instead of speculation. The legacy of Bell Labs kind of runs contrary to this idea, because they were not only paid to come up with ideas, but also told to come up with ideas that would be profitable. Then there were the guys in the Advanced Institute who got paid to do nothing else but come up with great ideas.

    The only thing I would even dare venture to guess is that the great ideas of the ages have come from people who were looking for things, even if they found something other than what they were looking for (like Penicillin).

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Yes, and further we know that only NASA and space are the true motivators of innovation. People in general never had interest in technology before about 1957.

    • The only thing I would even dare venture to guess is that the great ideas of the ages have come from people who were looking for things, even if they found something other than what they were looking for (like Penicillin).

      Or LSD. Or cortexiphan.

    • Re:Bell Labs (Score:4, Informative)

      by Mr. Slippery ( 47854 ) <tms@@@infamous...net> on Wednesday October 22, 2014 @12:31AM (#48201409) Homepage

      The legacy of Bell Labs kind of runs contrary to this idea, because they were not only paid to come up with ideas, but also told to come up with ideas that would be profitable.

      And yet C and Unix came about because someone wanted to play games [harvard.edu].

    • by Prune ( 557140 )
      Bell Labs is not representative.
    • There is probably something of a myth of people being paid to have great ideas, most research started as a means to sort out a particular problem that branched into a new field by chance. People didn't intended to have great ideas they ended up stumbling on them, either by doing their work, luck or by having a particular keen interest and curiosity.
      On the side of the status quo, researchers are only valuable if they are coming up with work that can have some usefulness.
      This might be a statement of status
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Why is it patent clerks are so good at inventing things? I mean yeah ok their timing is suspiciously close with submissions but who's to say who invented what first.

  • Asimov wrote:

    The world in general disapproves of creativity

    We can see evidence of this in how copyright treats derivative works. All works build on other works, as Asimov wrote when he described connecting A to B to C, yet some forms of such building are forbidden by law.

    • All works build on other works, as Asimov wrote when he described connecting A to B to C, yet some forms of such building are forbidden by law.

      So maybe you need to be more creative to find a way that doesn't infringe the law :-)

      If you succeed, then copyright law has succeeded in its' stated goal, to encourage creativity (though perhaps not quite in the way intended).

      • by tepples ( 727027 )

        So maybe you need to be more creative to find a way that doesn't infringe the law :-)

        But how can a layman know where the line is for a particular use? The uncertainty itself has a chilling effect on creativity.

        • So maybe you need to be more creative to find a way that doesn't infringe the law :-)

          But how can a layman know where the line is for a particular use? The uncertainty itself has a chilling effect on creativity.

          For most laypersons, it's not a problem because they'll never be in a position to produce copyright works. So only those who are actually exercising their creativity in a fashion that is governed by copyright need worry.

          From this subset, someone who's producing music, art, or literary works has probably had it drilled into them in school that plagiarism is wrong. So, if they're lifting someone else's work and calling it their own, they're not being creative and deserve what they get. They're just tryi

          • For most laypersons, it's not a problem because they'll never be in a position to produce copyright works.

            What? Everything you create is covered by copyright.

            • For most laypersons, it's not a problem because they'll never be in a position to produce copyright works.

              What? Everything you create is covered by copyright.

              Au contraire, not everything that someone creates is covered by copyright. To be eligible for copyright, it has to be original, non-trivial, and not a compilation of facts such as a list of names and addresses. And then there's the stuff that people "create" that someone else already did - hence the expression "great minds think alike."

              It also has to be fixed in some medium. [copyright.gov]

              A work is “created” when it is fixed in a copy or phonorecord for the first time; where a work is prepared over a period of time, the portion of it that has been fixed at any particular time constitutes the work as of that time, and where the work has been prepared in different versions, each version constitutes a separate work.

              A work is “fixed” in a tangible medium of expression when its embodiment in a copy or phonorecord, by or under the authority of the author, is sufficiently permanent or stable to permit it to be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated for a period of more than transitory duration. A work consisting of sounds, images, or both, that are being transmitted, is “fixed” for purposes of this title if a fixation of the work is being made simultaneously with its transmission.

              Only to the extent that artwork contains non-utilitarian aspects is it protected. The rest isn't. So if the artwork is strictly u

          • someone who's producing music, art, or literary works has probably had it drilled into them in school that plagiarism is wrong

            So what can a composer of music do to determine whether or not he is accidentally infringing or plagiarizing? George Harrison got bit by this (Bright Tunes Music v. Harrisongs Music, the "My Sweet Lord" case).

            If, on the other hand, their story, music, or artwork is original

            Let me rephrase the question: How can someone starting out in the business determine what is original?

            • To answer your question

              Let me rephrase the question: How can someone starting out in the business determine what is original?

              You can never be sure, especially if you're a newcomer to the field, that someone hasn't plowed that field before. How many times have you heard someone who isn't in tech come up to you and say "I've got this great idea ..." and they haven't even bothered to do the most cursory search, which would have revealed that it's not original at all?

              Obviously you can't do this [nytimes.com].

              And then there's the whole question of timing. Sometimes, an idea's time has come, and multiple people will exp

              • You can never be sure, especially if you're a newcomer to the field, that someone hasn't plowed that field before.

                So what should a newcomer to a creative field do to avoid being blindsided and bankrupted by incumbent owners of exclusive rights? If there are no good steps that a newcomer can take, then this impossibility has a chilling effect on people even trying to become a newcomer to a creative field.

                How many times have you heard someone who isn't in tech come up to you and say "I've got this great idea ..." and they haven't even bothered to do the most cursory search, which would have revealed that it's not original at all?

                What kind of search?

                Obviously you can't do this [an alternate-point-of-view adaptation of a culturally significant work]

                This is a form of creativity of which society currently disapproves through its elected representatives. How does it benefit society for society to disapprove of this?

                you pays your money (or in this case, sweat equity) and you takes your chances.

                Why the subject-verb disagreemen

                • You can never be sure, especially if you're a newcomer to the field, that someone hasn't plowed that field before.

                  So what should a newcomer to a creative field do to avoid being blindsided and bankrupted by incumbent owners of exclusive rights? If there are no good steps that a newcomer can take, then this impossibility has a chilling effect on people even trying to become a newcomer to a creative field.

                  Get to know the field. Those who don't study history are doomed to repeat it.

                  Also, don't worry about it. If your book or film or artwork is truly original, it should stand on its' own.

                  The field of software is about the only real minefield - if you're stupid enough to strip files of copyright and then claim ownership of the complete work, you deserve a kick in the head. We all learned in school that plagiarism is wrong.

                  How many times have you heard someone who isn't in tech come up to you and say "I've got this great idea ..." and they haven't even bothered to do the most cursory search, which would have revealed that it's not original at all?

                  What kind of search?

                  Oh for the good old days of justf***inggoogleforit.

                  Obviously you can't do this [an alternate-point-of-view adaptation of a culturally significant work]

                  This is a form of creativity of which society currently disapproves through its elected representatives. How does it benefit society for society to disapprove of this?

                  The work lacked creativity - o

                  • If your book or film or artwork is truly original, it should stand on its' own.

                    You skipped music.

                    What kind of search?

                    Oh for the good old days of justf***inggoogleforit.

                    I have Google Play Sound Search installed on my Nexus 7 tablet. But it supports only known commercial recordings, not my own singing or piano playing. Shazam has the same limit.

                    So what should Harrison have done

                    Not published it.

                    That'd be fine if the accidental ripoff had been pointed out before All Things Must Pass went gold. Otherwise it would have involved an expensive recall, withdrawing copies that had already been shipped to stores.

    • We can see evidence of this in how copyright treats derivative works. All works build on other works, as Asimov wrote when he described connecting A to B to C,

      Copyright rewards creativity, originality.

      The geek's imagination doesn't to stretch much farther than fan fiction. The golden triangle of Star Trek, Star Wars and Dr. Who.

    • To be fair, copyright originally was for 14 years (plus a one time 14 year extension). So if you took 28 year old A and added 29 year old B plus 14 year old (and not renewed) C, you could come up with something new. It might have been a delay, but it wasn't a horrendous one. Now, though, you'd need to wait for A, B, and C to be 120 years old before you could use them. (When Asimov wrote this article, copyright terms were 28 years with a one-time 67 year extension. Arguably, still too long.)

  • Words from a beloved authority figure come down revealing, (without even intending it to be a direct nudge), that many of his adoring flock lead lives dominated by of anti-creative thought patterns.

    The bitter and begrudged ruffle of feathers in some of the posts here is telling.

    He wasn't attacking you. Settle down. If you recognize yourself, then that calls for introspection, not defensiveness.

  • Well worth reading? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Jack9 ( 11421 ) on Tuesday October 21, 2014 @11:50PM (#48201285)

    > Asimov's essay, which is well worth reading in its entirety:

    No, it isn't. John Cleese's thoughts on the matter are much more thoughtful and thought provoking. He's had a lifetime to consider it. Although he didn't make much progress, it was more than Asimov.

    http://petapixel.com/2014/10/2... [petapixel.com]

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Just wanted to thank you for posting that link. Cleese's delivery is as entertaining as ever but the content is so much more than that. Not only does it come across as well thought-out and thoroughly researched (if nothing else by linking together research done by experts in their field), it is, as you put it, thought provoking.

      Thank you again, it's been a while since I've come across a comment on Slashdot that was, at one and the same time, on-topic, insightful, interesting and useful. Are you new here? ;)

    • by ediron2 ( 246908 ) on Wednesday October 22, 2014 @10:27AM (#48203393) Journal

      Both are good. Interestingly, Asimov's contrived sinecure/forum resembles the BBC comedy writing teams decades ago: a paycheck, a roomful of brilliance, a target (funny but broadcastable) and free reign to be as ludicrous as is needed. Doug Adams, Monty Python, Laurie & Fry, The Young Ones -- all describe their BBC time very warmly. Ditto friends from

      Oh, and you most remind me of someone who says '... and I *have* a sense of humor.'

  • I've come up with many ideas on my own that others have made millions or billions on. The execution is the hard part. There's a quote from someone who eludes me that says,"If you're on the right track, but you're standing still, you'll be run over." The comforting thought you get when this happen is that you come up with good ideas.

    My theory for coming up with good ideas is simple. Look at new technologies, and try and apply them to the world. Look at a lot of the first electrical devices, they're
    • Looking at stuff and trying to apply it to the world isn't that obvious.
      I remember a story my dad told about when he got to play with one of the first microprocessors: a (relatively) big, fragile and expensive piece of kit. The question most people would ask about this new technology is: "What can we use this for?". And most of them would try and answer that in terms of the situation they are presented with: i.e. they come up with applications for that processor that take its properties (big, fragile and
  • by westlake ( 615356 ) on Wednesday October 22, 2014 @12:07AM (#48201327)

    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.

    There is a long tradition of finding secure but undemanding jobs for creative talents who, for political or ideological reasons, could not be subsidized openly.

    • No, most sinecures were a way of keeping useless aristocrats out of harm's way. It was mainly coincidence that some of them were artists.
  • The good doctor passed away in 1992

  • If you want a process for fostering creativity, read something like this:

    http://smile.amazon.com/Young-... [amazon.com]

    Ad agencies have to come up with ideas all the time, and their processes for doing so have worked for over a century. Each agency is different, but all of them have to be creative on demand.

  • I get new ideas by cleaning out old files.

  • by codeButcher ( 223668 ) on Wednesday October 22, 2014 @04:09AM (#48201927)
    Not much different from Edward de Bono's [wikipedia.org] writings on Lateral Thinking [wikipedia.org], which of course go into somewhat more depth and systematize a method for doing the creative/lateral thinking.
  • Asimov's advice for how to run effective bull sessions for creative geniuses is based on the assumption that progress is made by a few "great men" who can see and imagine things that all others miss. This theory is not exactly politically correct these days, to say the least. Modern history books are full of attempts to find and highlight what I might call the "Forgotten Man" of history, the story of ordinary people who represent an entire class of people who collectively brought about change.

    Personally, I

  • I wonder how Isaac Asimov would have regarded social media. His essay had the statement "For every new good idea you have, there are a hundred, ten thousand foolish ones, which you naturally do not care to display." In social media, people will post hundreds of statements of varying quality. Most will be ignored (or read and instantly forgotten in the flood of content). A few will rise to the top (being retweeted, reposted, shared, etc). I know using social media (and the Internet in general) has made

  • I think that Asimov's observations on the inhibitory effect of visibility and accountability are applicable to the smaller forms of creativity and risk taking like trying new tools and technologies.

    I've seen this occur with SCRUM. We had dev team build a new product, burning down backlog through multiple sprints, with an overall results that were pedestrian. By which I mean functional, pretty interface; nothing to complain about really, code was reviewed, tests passed, etc. But you were left wondering the

  • When asked where he got his ideas, he once said: 'From a little ideas shop in Bognor Regis'.

    http://www.neilgaiman.com/p/Co... [neilgaiman.com]

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