With tens of thousands of books, short stories, articles, and reviews to his credit, science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov may have been one of the most prolific creatives of the 20th century. But what did the I, Robot and Foundation author think was the most important elements of the creative life? Isolation, a good work ethic, and a willingness to waste other people’s time and money.
In a never-before-published essay first written in 1959, Asimov mulls over where great, world-changing ideas actually come from. The importance of a solid work ethic almost goes saying, but Asimov makes a strong argument that isolation is just as important.
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 famous example of Kekule working out the structure of benzene in his sleep is well-known.)
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.
But isolation is not enough. Asimov says that a creative person’s worst enemy isn’t distraction, but guilt over wasting a less creative person’s money.
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.
To feel guilty because one has not earned one’s salary because one has not had a great idea is the surest way, it seems to me, of making it certain that no great idea will come in the next time either.
To Asimov, then, creativity ultimately came from having the entire playground of the mind all to himself: no distractions, no people, and no responsibility, even if that means slacking off. So next time your boss catches you working on a personal project instead of a spreadsheet, don’t feel bad about it. Asimov approves.
Read the full essay here.