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Isaac Asimov’s Advice for Being Creative (Hint: Don’t Brainstorm)

March 27th, 2015 · 30 comments

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Asimov’s Lost Essay

In the late 1950’s, Arthur Obermayer worked for Allied Research Associates, a cold war-era science lab. During this period, his employer received a grant from the Advanced Research Projects Agency to “elicit the most creative approaches possible for a ballistic missile defense system.”

Obermayer was a longtime friend of the famed science fiction writer Isaac Asimov. Figuring that Asimov might know a thing or two about creativity, he brought him into the project.

The result was an essay, penned by Asimov, on the topic of creative breakthroughs. Oberymayer recently brought this essay to the attention of the MIT Technology Review magazine, which reprinted it in full.

The piece contains several original notions, but what caught my attention was its take on where creative ideas come from.

The Creativity of One

Every since ad man Alex Osborn introduced the brainstorming technique in the early 1940’s, creativity has been sold as a collaborative process. This is a big part of the reason, for example, why Facebook is creating the world’s largest open office in its new headquarters — people need to serendipitously bounce ideas off of each other to stumble onto breakthroughs.

Asimov disagrees:

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.

To have people sit in a room and jot ideas on butcher paper, or to chat idly at their open office work tables, in other words, is not likely to generate deep insight.

Indeed, such collaboration can even hurt this goal:

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.

This doesn’t mean, however, that bringing creative people together is worthless. As Asimov elaborates, group meetings, if kept small (he estimates five people as an ideal size), do have a use.

Just not the one we’re used to hearing.

The goal for creative meetings is not to come up with new ideas, he argues, but instead to transfer the raw material for these ideas between participants. As Asimov explains: “No two people exactly duplicate each others’ mental stores of items.”

The goal of collaboration, in other words, is to quickly increase the store of material that the creative can then work with once returned to his or her isolated cogitation.

As someone who makes a living on creative insights (how else to describe proof solving), I’m sympathetic to Asimov’s take. While group activities like brainstorming might be useful for lightweight projects, like coming up with a new slogan for an advertisement, if you’re instead trying to solve an unsolved proof, or, more pressingly, improve ballistic missile defense, there’s no way to avoid learning hard things and then thinking hard about what you learned, hoping to tease out a new connection.

This is fundamentally a deep process — one that no amount of brainstorming sessions or distracting open office spaces can short circuit.

(Photo by Firas Wehbe)

30 thoughts on “Isaac Asimov’s Advice for Being Creative (Hint: Don’t Brainstorm)

  1. Ali says:

    I think this may have something to do with why I like online study groups more than face to face ones. It’s not that I’m unsociable, but I like the freedom to ‘leave’ the group whenever I want to think quietly on what we’ve been talking about. For example, if we’ve been sharing thoughts on a particular piece of research, I have the option to immediately sit quietly and think about how it relates to other research I’ve been reading, or to my own work. In a face-to-face study group I would be seen as quite weird if I suddenly went and sat in a corner to think. I’d also not have the option of catching up on the conversation missed which I have online.

    Thanks Cal, really helpful insights as always.

  2. Kyle D says:

    You’re preaching to the chorus on this one. All meaningful work in the world is done by a few people in isolation.

    One nitpick:

    You’re severely underestimating the work that goes into “coming up with a new slogan for an advertisement”.

    With the good agencies, there are years and years of research, testing, failing and succeeding that go into those ads. Slogans aren’t just dreamt up willy nilly but forged.

    After all, might there be more money in the world spent on advertising than on ballistic missile defense? At least the former isn’t a fool’s errand… 😉

  3. David says:

    For extroverts brainstorming is productive. Explaining your thoughts to other people helps you get you intuitive insights…. at least if you are an ENTP like me. For introverts isolation is probably good. I feel a lot of your advice is good for introverts but not for extroverts.

    1. Elizabeth says:

      Cal is analyzing cognitive processes (e.g., generating insight, which we might provisionally unpack as: generating a new description of a phenomenon that emphasizes the features most salient to solving the problem at hand).

      Why do you think that personality differences will fundamentally alter the conditions in which cognitive processes occur? What’s your evidence, and what are the implications for cognition?

      My questions are partly genuine and partly skeptical. My meta-point is that we should question folk wisdom about cognition, which your comment strikes me as an example of. Am I being unfair?

      1. Jon says:

        I concur, and I applaud your effort to raise your point respectfully.

        I would go a step farther and propose that original insights are more the purview of the introvert for this exact reason. Extroverts are more comfortable in environments that aren’t conducive to producing them.

      2. AS says:

        Personality differences do affect cognitive processes. An introvert thinks best in solitude; an extrovert thinks best in the presence of other people. They are stimulated by different things. There is lots written about this.

      3. Livonor says:

        I also don’t like this “everybody is special” trends, I saw a lot of damage coming from it in several areas and it’s fundamentally wrong (humans are extremely similar to each other in pretty much everything). Reminds me of the “learning types” thingy, the truth is that my self-imposed mental image of what type of learner I am rarely matters, the only thing that’s important is the type of information I’m dealing with, everybody’s a visual learner when using images is easy and convenient.

    2. ReyBan3 says:

      I have to agree with David’s take on introverts vs extroverts with creativity. Introverts like to ponder things to themselves and sometimes their greatest creative juices comes from being alone. Extroverts thrive on the ideas of others and relish on group process and collaboration to create a “better” version of their own idea.

  4. Alas, I’m more than a little inclined to reject ideas from Asimov for several large and substantial reasons.

    My first awareness that I could actively dislike a piece of literature came about twelve when I read his then three-volume Foundation trilogy. I loathed his smug assumption that society would be better off if a small clique of people (scientists naturally) were covertly manipulating everyone else. “NO!” was my response.

    Much science fiction suffers from a similar fault, a reductionist view of human nature. But Asimov seems to have carried it to an extreme. For instance, I recall one of his tales in which he assumes as a matter of course that people who grew up in a domed city would be fearful of wide open spaces.

    “No,” I felt like screaming when I read that. “People aren’t like that.” That’s typical smug and elitist thinking—humans (excepting themselves) as little more than products of hereditary and environment. In reality, people are about as likely to dislike the world they grew up in and be intrigued by something different. For instance, someone who grew up in Kansas may love the sea. Someone who was born in a big city may love forests. Our environment isn’t our destiny, least of all in the narrow and mechanical way I read in Asimov.

    And having decided that Asimov has little imagination and little ability to self-criticize his reductionist POV, I’m not inclined to take his advice about creativity seriously lest I become just a little bit like him.

    –Michael W. Perry, author of Untangling Tolkien

    1. phred says:

      “that society would be better off if a small clique of people (scientists naturally) were covertly manipulating everyone else”

      Would it be much worse than a small group of one percenters overtly manipulating us by passing laws for their own convenience and wealth enhancement?

  5. Steven says:

    Ed Catmull said that candor amongst an intimate team is critical to really good creativity at Pixar. Seems to align with this idea. One person there can trump an entire script or scene, and suggest improvements. All because they are brutally honest and open with one another.

    I think whether you’re being honest with yourself or a team of people around a table, it’s important to allow all the “embarrassment” to happen. It’s where the best stuff comes from.

  6. I read a book called The Myths of Creativity. There’s a chapter on brainstorming, the gist of which is that most people don’t understand the concept. Brainstorming is not productive when people show up and shout things that pop in their head. It is productive when people bring their ideas together and build on them collaboratively.

    Here’s my review/summary of the book: http://thekeypoint.org/2015/03/01/the-myths-of-creativity/

  7. Joy Casey says:

    Interesting article. Also, I liked the article you supplied in your post that was written by Isaac Asimov. Besides the need for isolation in order to think deeply, I like what he had to say about joviality, playing around, being relaxed, etc.

    It is an interesting distinction that we should not brainstorm, but rather educate and share our knowledge. I really like reading your thought-provoking posts.

  8. Carl says:

    Back when I was trying my own hand at writing science fiction, I found collaborating to be very stimulating to creativity. Having someone else’s partially formed thoughts as seed ideas can be very powerful. Debates and dorm room bull sessions are also great creativity stimulants.

    The follow-through, however, is generally best done alone. I dislike open offices. I like either lots of conference rooms or individual offices big enough to have a small conference in.


    I have to agree with Michael Perry. I have often thought of Isaac Asimov as one of the least creative of the golden age SF writers. Nearly all his futures felt like 1950s USA with one or two technological tweaks. I have long been puzzled by why his stories are the usual fare for the token bit of SF in high school English lit classes. Was it the lack of sex or that he was a lefty at a time when John Campbell’s conservatism dominated the genre?

    His science popularizations, on the other hand, rocked.

  9. Joshua Smith says:

    I suspect this has a lot more to do with personality than can be declared by an overarching “Law of Creativity.” I’ve no doubt Asimov worked better alone. The same simply isn’t true for everyone, everywhere.

    1. Anon says:

      It probably is, the very least for the majority. If you think you work better in a group, you will work even better alone!

  10. Han says:

    This is completely in accordance with the findings of Girotra, Terwiesch, and Ulrich, 2010.

  11. Guy Andefors says:

    Thanks for sharing this great article Cal.

    As someone who’s work is what you describe as ‘lightweight projects’ I’m grateful I don’t work on such taxing problems as those you have to face. Yet I too highly value isolation to process and reflect on creative problem solving.

    Keep up the deep work!

    Guy

  12. Livonor says:

    Anyone who made group projects in high school knows how’s that gonna end, hours after hours are spent talking trash, discussing pointless personal issues, laughing, without nothing being done.

  13. Cait Stuff says:

    Perhaps this just says something about the kind of “creative ideas” that Facebook is interested in developing, no?

  14. essaythinker says:

    It is true that everyone born with special qualities and characteristics that make difference between us. But creativity in any work seems pretty appreciative because of something new. Asimove’s advice is, in other words, big piece of instructions to bring creativity in either collecting of raw data, writing it or publishing it. Love it.

  15. Andrew says:

    This is far more articulate than my way of explaining why my best ideas always come from isolation to my old debate team coach

    “I’m not a team player and never have been.”

    Luckily I got a college recommendation months before I told her that.

  16. NickyReich says:

    I’ve heard a lot about them. People call him father of Russian fantastic literature.
    Maybe you would like to read about great American authors here and find a lot of info for writers at this forum

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