January 9, 2015

Creation is Embarrassing

        Back around 1959, Isaac Asimov was invited to participate in a brainstorming group set up by MIT and the government to generate creative ideas for a missile defense system.  Asimov’s only formal contribution to the group was an essay on creativity, which many a modern business manager and classroom teacher would do well to read.  In it Asimov tries to distill what he thinks are the necessary ingredients for creativity, and what are the benefits of group brainstorming.  He wrote
        …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… 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.
        I think he’s pinpointed a couple of important things here.  First, that although all the world loves a success, it is generally not very impressed by the steps that lead up to that success.  Every great idea comes after a long trail of discarded ideas, but while being the genius who puts forward the winning idea is respected, putting forth all the preliminary ideas that lead to it is not only not respected, but often actively discouraged.  So how do we carry on with our own creativity in the face of potential embarrassment?  Mostly by keeping our ideas to ourselves.  And how do we teach and encourage creativity?  By trying not to mock, of course, but even more importantly, by giving room for private thought and permission for solitude.  So the second point here is that we can’t be creative if we’re always in a public jumble of other people, without the chance to work through our own series of foolish ideas, quietly combing out the few precious strands.
        Asimov makes a third point, however: that group work can be enormously helpful in multiplying the fund of knowledge that can then potentially be combined in new, unexpected ways.  I know that I’ve often benefitted from running half-baked thoughts past tolerant family members.  They respond with the facts, ideas, fancies, and questions that occur to them, which are inevitably somewhat different from those that had already occurred to me.  But, Asimov asserts, this process only works in a group in which “all people at a session be willing to sound foolish and listen to others sound foolish.”  This requires a special kind of people, and a special kind of group dynamic.  Many a highly intelligent person has squelched their ability for creativity through too deep a concern for respectability making them unwilling to sound foolish.  Many a highly eccentric person has squelched the creativity of others through too deep a concern for their own colorful self making them unwilling to listen to others sounding foolish.
        So what does creativity require?  Silly people willing to spend time with their own silly thoughts, punctuated by time spent being silly together.  Perfection!  Therefore I challenge you: have you been silly today?

[Picture: The Electric Boots, engraving by A&E Taylor, from The Children’s Fairy Geography by Forbes Edward Winslow, 1879. (Image from The British Library.)]
Quotations from On Creativity, by Isaac Asimov, c 1959.  You can read Asimov’s full essay at MIT Technology Review.

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