Asimov on Fame, Fortune, and Creative Breakthrough

Part 2 of an Analysis of Isaac Asimov’s Long Lost Letter on Creativity

In my last post I used a long lost letter from Isaac Asimov to talk about brainstorming and outline what I consider the five ingredients for creativity. I ended the post with a promise to follow up with the flip side of the equation, the things that prevent us from having a creative breakthrough.

This isn’t so much about the tiny oppositions to creativity as it is about some giant myths that send so many of us down the wrong path. Nobody ever comes right out and says this, but most of us have the following formula scribbled on our mental road map for living a successful life:

“First, get an education. Then figure out a way to get rich and famous.”

In my book Art of the Living Dead I explain why these elements (money, fame, and an education) are not only the wrong goals, the presence of any of those things make it nearly impossible to have a disruptive creative breakthrough. Rather than make my full case here, I will simply taunt you with that idea and hope you check out my book for the full story. Don’t worry, I won’t keep you hanging completely, Isaac Asimov’s letter is full of advice about money, fame, and education that starts to make the case for why these elements can corrupt creative ambition. Let’s get into it…

Trap 1: Money

“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.”

Once something becomes a job it ceases to exist in the same part of the brain where creativity thrives. Sure, we can trick our brains into forgetting about the assembly line. Yes, we can decorate our desks with flair that takes the edge off the factory setting. Some of us even get to work from home in our pajamas. The crazy thing is that it is really hard to bring the creative goods to your job, but your hobbies, the things that you do purely for love, these are the places where our best work happens naturally.

Money changes our relationship to idea generation. How do you put a dollar amount on a creative idea? If you are lucky enough to produce one, you can’t explain how you did it. If the idea gods neglect you then it is hard to accept payment for your time. You feel guilty either way, and as Asimov says,

“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.”

Trap 2: Fame/Publicity

“If a single individual present has a much greater reputation than the others, or is more articulate, or has a distinctly more commanding personality, he may well take over the conference and reduce the rest to little more than passive obedience.”

A side effect of fame is creative blind spots. Your ability to collaborate is handicapped because would-be collaborators are transformed into fans or critics. Your sense of quality becomes warped by your own reflection. Fame destroys the privacy required to wrestle with the outrageous ideas that yield breakthroughs.

Asimov recognized the challenge that the project faced due to the public scrutiny that government work necessitated. I am all for transparency, but it is extremely difficult to be creative when you know that the more original your ideas are the more harshly they will be scrutinized. Asimov said,

“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.”

Trap 3: Education

“Consequently, the person who is most likely to get new ideas is a person of good background in the field of interest and one who is unconventional in his habits. (To be a crackpot is not, however, enough in itself.)”

That’s pretty great, isn’t it? You have to know what you’re doing, but you also need to be a bit of a crackpot. Here’s to the crazy ones.

We put too much stock into education — to attending the right schools, to hiring people with the correct university listed on their diploma. Often that type of knowledge is superficial and brittle compared to self-motivated learning. Earning a diploma is easy compared to the effort required to master a subject without shortcuts. Breakthrough requires a fanaticism for the subject matter that is rarely present in the classroom.

My final quote from Asimov doesn’t appear in his letter, but it is too good not to include here. It puts the burden of knowledge not on schools or diplomas but on the shoulders of the person who is passionate enough to seek it out for himself. He says,

“Self-education is, I firmly believe, the only kind of education there is.”

Thanks you for reading. If you like this post, please share it. Your recommendation goes a long way to encourage me to keep writing. Stay creative.

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