Read Isaac Asimov's never-published 1959 essay 'On Creativity,' written for DARPA

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Oct 21, 2014

Back in the late 1950s, the proto-version of DARPA approached some of the top thinkers and sci-fi writers to think “out of the box” — and here’s what legendary sci-fi author Isaac Asimov came up with, albeit 55 years later.

Asimov was approached by ARPA (now known as DARPA) for some think-tank work back in the day, and though he ultimately decided not to work with the organization because he feared access to classified intel might hinder his freedom, he did produce one paper as part of the arrangement.

Dubbed “On Creativity,” the paper languished in a file cabinet until Asimov’s colleague Arthur Obermayer rediscovered it while sorting through some long-forgotten documents. Realizing he’d stumbled upon a think piece by Isaac Freaking Asimov talking about the intangible concept of creativity, he wisely decided to share it with the world.

You can (and should) read the full paper here, but check out an excellent excerpt below:

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.

Yet your company is conducting this cerebration program on government money. To think of congressmen or the general public hearing about scientists fooling around, boondoggling, telling dirty jokes, perhaps, at government expense, is to break into a cold sweat. In fact, the average scientist has enough public conscience not to want to feel he is doing this even if no one finds out.

I would suggest that members at a cerebration session be given sinecure tasks to do—short reports to write, or summaries of their conclusions, or brief answers to suggested problems—and be paid for that; the payment being the fee that would ordinarily be paid for the cerebration session. The cerebration session would then be officially unpaid-for and that, too, would allow considerable relaxation.

So what do you think of the piece? Do you agree with Asimov’s musings?

(Via MIT Technology Review, Gizmodo)

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