Isaac Asimov on how to come up with new ideas

Originally published at:


I really love his work, but he was a serial sexual harasser. Knowing that did make me read his women characters much differently.


A friend had a good technique – bang two previously unconnected ideas together and see what happens.


I believe it’s also apocryphal. But people do have ideas in dreams and hallucinations and stuff. I learned to point my eyes in different directions while high, and the first time I made chocolate eclairs was because I had the idea in a dream.


The importance of having ideas is wildly overrated. Pretty much anyone can come up with wacky suggestions. In fact, you need to be confident of how trivially easy that is before you can attain the real skill, which is being able to shoot down your own ideas without mercy. That’s where most cranks go wrong – you need to move outside conventional wisdom, yes, but you also need to understand where all the conventional critiques are coming from. It’s the critique that makes the difference between being a pioneer and just being loudly wrong.

I was always a science nerd, and I went to back to school to learn design, specifically because I thought there was a secret mental sauce I was missing, and there was, and it was basically that. It’s all about learning how to find fault with your work, and throw away the parts that don’t hold up.

(Asimov is kind of saying the same, but he’s also reifying the idea of the outsider genius, which I think is largely irrelevant and often self-serving)


Depends entirely on the people and the approach used. I have seen amazing creativity happen in teams, and I have facilitated workshops where people co-create stuff.

One examples for co-creation in Sci-Fi are Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven, who collaborated on several great novels, e.g. The Mote in God’s Eye. Or take the Wachowskis, or the Duffer Brothers.

Creativity is a strange topic. So many “creative” people have strong opinions about it, and fail to see that they mostly only understand their own approach, but are blind to the fact that there are so many different other approaches that can be successful for other people.


Wisdom, right there.


I want an AI to train on Asimov’s live interviews, then have it ready this essay. :slightly_smiling_face:

This. However, but many people are not aware that they can come up with lots of ideas.

There’s a lot of wisdom in the last bit: new viable novel approach is typically made up of many smaller ideas, so an essential skill is dissecting one’s ideas into the part that is helpful, and the part that is not, and then combining what is left into yet more ideas.

Modeling, preto- and prototyping can help a lot with that, because it helps you look at things in different perspectives.


That’s my technique is well. I have a list of story ideas, and if there’s one I like but it doesn’t seem to be lending itself to a story, I’ll go through the list again and pick something else to add to it.


Mildly amusing to read this at the same time as Dominic Cummings - who took this idea and ran with it - is being forced out of the UK government structures for not understanding that just because you have lots of new and crazy ideas doesn’t mean you should just try to bulldoze them over other people.


I used a random word generator to come up with ten nouns and ten verbs. Bonus points if you can string all combinations (or variants thereof) into the same story:

police earn
story spill
childhood adjustment
difference drop
college respect
candidate belong
cigarette trace
solution position
method prompt
wife educate

That’s my prompt method, anyway.


Interesting you should both mention writing! The fellow that said that is an author.

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We may be less common, but some of us definitely find the second easier and more natural than the first. Both are skills, and both are critical. It’s plausible the former is more natural for most people, while the latter requires (and is amenable to) more training, care, and practice.

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Oh, I do love MIT Review! Nice article, tyvm.

Hmm, I replied to your post. I’ll have to see what story I can pull together.

Very thankful for posting of this. However, the notion of solitary inspiration is, in my opinion, oversold in apocryphal descriptions of the successes of Einstein, for example. Geniuses do exist, to be sure. And they may thrive in isolation. But the vast majority of breakthrough advances come from team efforts via the give and take of 2 or more people. We are much stronger in collective efforts especially in solving challenges that are ever more complex.

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On a different day, presumably, Asimov wrote this explanation of his own creativity.


            Oh, Dr A.-
            Oh, Dr A.-
            There is something (don't go 'way)
            That I'd like to hear you say.
            Though I'd rather die
            Than try
            To pry,
            The fact, you'll find,
            Is that my mind
            Has evolved the jackpot question for today.

            I intend no cheap derision,
            So please answer with decision,
            And, discarding all your petty cautious fears,
            Tell the secret of your vision!
            How on earth
            Do you give birth
            To those crazy and impossible ideas?

            Is it indigestion
            And a question
            Of the nightmare that results?
            Of your eyeballs whirling,
            Fingers curling
            And unfurling
            While your blood beats maddened chimes
            As it keeps impassioned times
            With your thick, uneven pulse?

            It is _that_, you think, or liquor
            That brings on the wildness quicker?
            For a teeny
            Dry martiny
            May be just your private genie;
            Or perhaps those Tom and Jerries
            You will find the very
            For inducing
            And unloosing
            That weird gimmick or that kicker;
            Or an awful
            Of unlawful
            Marijuana plus tequilla,
            That will give you just that feel o'
            Things a-clicking
            And unsticking
            As you start for celebration
            To the crazy syncopation
            Of a brain a-tocking-ticking.

            Surely _something_, Dr A.,
            Makes you you fey
            And quite _outre_.
            Since I read you with devotion,
            Won't you give me just a notion
            Of that shrewdy pepper-up potion
            Out of which emerge your plots?
            That wild secret bubbly mixture
            That has made you such a fixture
            In most favoured s.f. spots -

            Now, Dr A.,
            Don't go away -

            Oh, Dr A.-

            Oh, Dr A.-


I couldn’t resist, but pls excuse the weird.

So my local police earned the story, spilled from childhood adjustment where the difference between being dropped from college and respecting that their candidate belonged there was as thin as a cigarette paper. They traced the solution to a position methodically prompted by the captain’s wife, in order to educate the rest of the team…


:clap: nicely done!

And welcome to boingboing!


Ta. Sort of got addicted to this place at the start of the election. Good bunch of people…


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