Isaac Asimov on How To Discover New Ideas

Isaac Asimov on How To Discover New Ideas


deas lead to innovation. Naturally, we’re always looking for the next big idea that can change the world, but that’s easier said than done.

So how can you discover new ideas? Naturally, prolific author Isaac Asimov has some light to shed on the subject. In a recent publication of a 1959 essay, Asimov shared his insights on how to foster creativity and discover new ideas.

The following are his timeless thoughts on the subject.

Ideas Are Born In Solitude

First and foremost, Asimov believed that ideas are born in solitude for one simple reason: quality. When we brainstorm, we can come up with a lot of ideas, but most of them are probably terrible.

…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.

Starting alone gives you a chance to vet your own ideas and only go forward with the ones that pass your better judgement. This also serves as a good initial filter in the process.

Ideas Need To Be Shared

Despite this initial approach of solitude, it is quickly acknowledged that the sharing of ideas takes things to the next level. The reason is not that groups are better at coming up with ideas, but the sharing of ideas leads to interesting combinations and connections. This cross-pollination of ideas is key to coming up with something new and useful.

…the purpose of cerebration sessions is not to think up new ideas but to educate the participants in facts and fact-combinations, in theories and vagrant thoughts.

*note: if you were wondering, as I was, cerebration means ‘the working of the brain or thinking’.

Ideas Flourish Among the Right People

Sharing ideas with others is a great start, but Asimov goes into great detail about the type of person to share with. A point that seems to make a big difference on the effectiveness of the practice.

First of all, they are often people who are knowledgeable of the field, but also have an eccentric nature, making them prime candidates to think outside the box. At the same time, they should be peers that view themselves on equal footing. If you are brainstorming with your boss, you may not be as open to sharing a crazy thought or challenge an idea.

Just as the type of person matters, so does the number of people. Keeping to smaller groups, around 5 or so, ensures a more conversational setting where people do not need to wait their turn to speak.

Ideas Require a Relaxed Environment

This point is probably my favorite. A key factor in fostering ideas is having a relaxed environment: one that feels safe, laid-back, and open. Working around a dinner table or at a coffee shop is more ideal than in a conference room. The reason is because of the nature of creativity itself.

Joviality, the use of first names, joking, relaxed kidding are, I think, of the essence—not in themselves, but because they encourage a willingness to be involved in the folly of creativeness.

The point is creativity takes a certain care-free, playful demeanor in and of itself, so supporting that mood by being in a similar setting only helps the process.

Ideas Should Not Be Paid For

When having ideas is your primary job or responsibility, then ideas come fewer and far between. With this point, Asimov argues that your job shouldn’t be ideation, but ideation should be something you do on the side. Almost as if an extracurricular activity, which removes the pressure of the situation.

The great ideas of the ages have come from people who weren’t paid to have great ideas…

If your paycheck relies on ideas, it can be stressful indeed. A combination that doesn’t mesh well with the mindset needed in the creative process.

Ideas Need an Arbiter

Finally, Asimov points out that the process of ideation can often be served well by having an arbitor or facilitator of sorts. Someone who will offer guidance, ask the right questions, and probe the correct areas to maximize the effort.

…a session-arbiter will have to sit there, stirring up the animals, asking the shrewd question, making the necessary comment, bringing them gently back to the point…

This is no easy feat, but still an important role to fill when coming up with ideas.


It’s quite clear that Asimov had a lot to say about the subject. Moreover, it’s impressive just how relevant his advice from over 50 years ago is still very relevant today.

So next time you’re in need of new ideas, heed his advice and see if it leads you to the next great innovation.

Image via flickr

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