Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Asimov on Creativity

Isaac Asimov's essays have been favorites of mine since I was a teenager, and while I can't claim to have read them all (he was the most prolific writer in the history of the world, if one excludes 'writers' who have computers write for them) I have read a lot. So I was excited to hear that a previously unpublished essay of his, On Creativity. And like many of his essays, this is spot on.

To summarize his conclusions, intellectual creativity (creation of startlingly new scientific ideas in particular, but not only that) tends to occur when previously unconnected ideas are examined together by a person in a conducive situation. And, he argues, a key feature of that conducive environment is the freedom to be playful, to unabashedly look foolish, to pursue ideas that don't seem likely to go anywhere with people whose expertise has no obvious connection to one's own. He implies, and it is at least as true now as when he wrote it in 1959, that the structure and strictures of science-as-a-business (including in academia) tend to discourage this. Connecting previously unconnected ideas is less likely when everyone is a specialist in her own field, not only unaware of the big ideas in other areas of science, but obligated by the strictures of specialist journals, specialist department, etc. to not wander too far afield. In the world of reputation building and publish or perish,  things like playfulness, acceptance of foolishness, and exploration of uncertain goals is potentially fatal. Funding applications not only require that you know exactly where you will end up, but also that you already have a significant portion of the data needed to get there.

At previous jobs, and in previous stages of my life, I often felt (and was told) that my intellectual creativity was my greatest strength. As things now stand, I have surprisingly little space for creativity, and when I do come out with something really original, I get something along the lines of, "Huh. That's different. What about this other thing that we all know about?" So the question I must ask myself is, how (and where) can I find a place where my creativity is an asset, not only for me, but for science and the world?

1 comment:

GreenEngineer said...

This sounds familiar.

Whenever I learn something new, my first reflex is to ask "how is this connected to what I know?" and "what else is this connected to?". This has led me to being a generalist and systems thinker within my areas of interest. I have actively cultivated those traits, as well, in the belief that they would make me better engineer.

And indeed, I think they do make me better at my work. But they definitely do not make me more employable.

The problem with applying the business approach to academic work and especially research is that "business approach" actually encompasses two related but distinct things. One is an set of organizational techniques for setting goals, channeling effort and measuring achievement. These methods are not necessarily appropriate to the research environment, but they do have their place, especially with applied research and industry-academic partnerships.
The problem is that "the business approach" is not just a methodology. There is also a value system involved. That value system is typically not acknowledged at all; when it is, it is treated as the default, to the degree that competing value systems are dismissed as "impractical" and "not serious".

Chief among the values of that system are
1) Predictable progress
2) Preferences for the least-risky path to profit
3) Preference for industrial-type processes that rely on readily-managed uniformity to enable scaling

These values are antithetical to what you are calling "creativity" and, I would assert, to actually framing problems in a meaningful fashion. These values effectively limit the scope and type of questions to which people are willing to devote their attention.

In this context, finding a place that values one's actual talents for creative thought is difficult. After several job changes, I have managed to achieve this to a degree. The key, I realize in retrospect, is to look for and associate with people who show indications of values other than the values of business.