Isaac Asimov: ‘Where Do People Get New Ideas?’

creative ideas
Photo: Björn Laczay

Where do good ideas come from?

In his 2010 video on the subject, author Steven Johnson described the question as one that “all of us are intrinsically interested in.” Johnson has spent years probing the source of ideas — including why they strike at the least expected times, and how long many of them take to fully coalesce — and found that the combination of smaller, partial ideas was a huge contributor. The idea that everything is borrowed (think Austin Kleon’s “Steal Like an Artist”) plays strongly in his research.

In his TED Talk, Johnson explains that this is why coffee shops have played such an important role in creativity and innovation; by allowing people to come together, pre-internet, to discuss big ideas and toss around partially-baked theories, these hubs of information helped thinkers break outside of their own patterns of thought.

“An idea — a new idea — is a new network of neurons firing in sync with each other inside your brain. It’s a new configuration that has never formed before. And the question is: how do you get your brain into environments where these new networks are going to be more likely to form? And it turns out that, in fact, the kind of network patterns of the outside world mimic a lot of the network patterns of the internal world of the human brain,” he explains.


Composer Brian Eno calls this kind of hive a “scenius,” — a sort of contrary notion to the age-old idea of the independent genius.

“As I looked at art more and more, I discovered that that wasn’t really a true picture. What really happened was that there was sometimes very fertile scenes involving lots and lots of people – some of them artists, some of them collectors, some of them curators, thinkers, theorists, people who were fashionable and knew what the hip things were – all sorts of people who created a kind of ecology of talent. And out of that ecology arose some wonderful work,” he explained in his curation of the Sydney Luminous Festival.

50 years before Eno and Johnson, though, another writer had the same idea. In a never-before-published 1959 essay on the subject of creativity, American science-fiction author Isaac Asimov, wondered about the origin of new information and ideas, and the similarities between different media and disciplines. He also hit on this idea that great ideas are a convergence of other notions or concepts.

“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,” he wrote, “One way of investigating the problem is to consider the great ideas of the past and see just how they were generated…what if the same earth-shaking idea occurred to two men, simultaneously and independently? Perhaps, the common factors involved would be illuminating.”

Creative ideas, Asimov points out, also usually come from a willingness or desire to think or operate in unexpected ways — which allows the thinkers to draw connections where others might not.

“To begin with, it usually seems unreasonable,” Asmivov writes, “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.”

Which means that creativity doesn’t just come from education and the ability to see and understand a lot of concepts, but also a method of thought that draws comparisons and links good ideas.

“…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…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.”

The push away from eccentricity — or at least, eccentric patterns of thought and recognition — is a practice in education that’s commonly being identified as a crucial misstep; in recent years, educational advocates like Sir Ken Robinson have been pushing for exactly this kind of collaboration and group ideating.

At least unknowingly in part because, it seems, of the kind of theories and thoughts on creative ideas that came decades before.

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Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and editor for CreativeLive, longtime reporter, and the co-founder of Seattlish. Follow her on Twitter at @mshannabrooks or go to her website for more stuff.