Creativity Thrives When It’s Not Your Job


Unearthed! Isaac Asimov’s private letter to a U.S. military research project back in the 1950s — how can the military be creative and come up with the best fresh ideas to help defend America from a ballistic missile attack?

In crafting some advice to the research team, he wonders what it is that the inventors of big, amazing new ideas have in common. For example, the two people associated with discovering the process of evolution by natural selection — Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace.

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.

You need to know stuff about the field, you need to be up-to-date on the key new ideas (e.g., the theories of Thomas Malthus) but you need to be able to make that leap across the facts.

How can you put yourself in a position to be like this? It turns out he thinks you can make it happen. It’s not just a “geniuses are those people who can make the connections.” He sees a pattern.

It is only afterward that a new idea seems reasonable. To begin with, it usually seems unreasonable.

The problem is the cross-connection will require some courage in the beginning — people will think you are nuts. In fact you have to be a little nuts to be ready to take on everyone thinking you are nuts.

The presence of others can only inhibit this process, since creation is embarrassing.

Not only do you want someone who can be daring enough to reject convention, you may not even want to group lots of such creative people together. They might inhibit themselves for fear of embarrassment. Asimov thinks you might let such people get together from time to time, to compare ideas a bit and stimulate further new thoughts. But not all the time. And it’s important that these get-togethers be loose.

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.


The best ideas come from play, without consequences if you fail to invent something great, without a feeling of deliverables.

Asimov leaves it there, but how can you apply these notions to making your own work more creative?

  1. Work independently. Get out of meetings and ‘brainstorming’ sessions. Do creative work in big blocks solo where you can be free. You can use modern tools to keep people up-to-date on what you are doing (the chat, email, project stuff like Knotable, Trello, Slack, Asana) but you can go retreat away from the office.
  2. Brainstorm with people who ‘volunteer’. Get people from other parts of the company or outside the company and hang out to talk ideas on an actual problem. Buy lunch. Write down their ideas. Your work is their play.
  3. Make sure creative people have other, non-creative jobs too, so they don’t feel guilty. Professors are researchers but they ‘pay the bills’ by teaching not only via breakthroughs. When you have creative roles in the company, make sure there are concrete end-products that aren’t just “great idea about X”.

Check out the full letter from Asimov here at Tech Review.


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