October 23, 2014
The MIT Technology Review recently published a previously undiscovered Isaac Asimov essay. It’s a great, simple piece that you should read if you haven’t already.
Asimov presents the idea that creativity is simply a series of links—that a creative’s job is to connect the threads between two ideas, thereby forming something greater than the sum of its parts. He explains the idea using an interesting example example:
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.
Undoubtedly in the first half of the 19th century, a great many naturalists had studied the manner in which species were differentiated among themselves. A great many people had read Malthus. Perhaps some both studied species and read Malthus. But what you needed was someone who studied species, read Malthus, and had the ability to make a cross-connection.
Steve Jobs, many years later, touched on this idea of connections. It’s almost eerie how similar the ideas from a Wired interview he did back in February 1996 are to those of Asimov:
Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.
Jobs was no thief, though—remember, Asimov’s essay was recently discovered, untouched, in some old files. The fact that two of the century’s most revolutionary minds conceived such similar theories suggests that they must have been doing something right.
Asimov’s writing also reminded me of the philosophies of Pixar’s Braintrust. (The whole story of the Braintrust appears in Creativity, Inc., but you can read a bit about it here). In short, the Braintrust is a roundtable meeting of trusted Pixar wizards that is designed to maximize candidness, effectiveness, and success. Some hallmarks of the system include “people with a deep understanding of storytelling, who usually have been through the process themselves” and a distinct lack of authority—every idea offered is simply a suggestion. Pixar executives maintain that this method is the key to the studio’s unparalleled success.
In describing his own version of a Braintrust, Asimov offers similar ideas that focus on fostering creativity:
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.
Asimov, as one of the greatest authors of science fiction, was no stranger to creativity. The same principles that he regarded as crucial to the creative process are the principles responsible for many of the best movies of our generation. Next time creativity must flow, openness and candidness must be of paramount importance—they’re the vehicles for effective brainstorming.
Just as Isaac Asimov’s literature foretold of the future in a science fiction universe, his prose foretold the future: the future of creativity and self-awareness, the future of a hugely successful animation studio, and the future ideas a brilliant innovator. His essay is a time capsule, and a reminder that some things never change.