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How Do People Get New Ideas?

In a previously unpublished 1959 essay, Isaac Asimov explores how people get new ideas.

Echoing Einstein and Seneca, Asimov believes that new ideas come from combining things together. Steve Jobs thought the same thing.

What if the same earth-shaking idea occurred to two men, simultaneously and independently? Perhaps, the common factors involved would be illuminating. Consider the theory of evolution by natural selection, independently created by Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace.

There is a great deal in common there. Both traveled to far places, observing strange species of plants and animals and the manner in which they varied from place to place. Both were keenly interested in finding an explanation for this, and both failed until each happened to read Malthus’s “Essay on Population.”

Both then saw how the notion of overpopulation and weeding out (which Malthus had applied to human beings) would fit into the doctrine of evolution by natural selection (if applied to species generally).

Obviously, then, what is needed is not only people with a good background in a particular field, but also people capable of making a connection between item 1 and item 2 which might not ordinarily seem connected.

Undoubtedly in the first half of the 19th century, a great many naturalists had studied the manner in which species were differentiated among themselves. A great many people had read Malthus. Perhaps some both studied species and read Malthus. But what you needed was someone who studied species, read Malthus, and had the ability to make a cross-connection.

That is the crucial point that is the rare characteristic that must be found. Once the cross-connection is made, it becomes obvious. Thomas H. Huxley is supposed to have exclaimed after reading On the Origin of Species, “How stupid of me not to have thought of this.”


Making the cross-connection requires a certain daring. It must, for any cross-connection that does not require daring is performed at once by many and develops not as a “new idea,” but as a mere “corollary of an old idea.”

It is only afterward that a new idea seems reasonable. To begin with, it usually seems unreasonable. It seems the height of unreason to suppose the earth was round instead of flat, or that it moved instead of the sun, or that objects required a force to stop them when in motion, instead of a force to keep them moving, and so on.

The paradox here is that crazy people are good at seeing new connections too, one notable difference being the outcome.

As a brief aside, I wonder if people are creative, in part because they are autodidacts rather than being autodidacts because they are creative? The formal education system doesn’t exactly encourage creativity. Generally, there are right and wrong answers. We’re taught to get the right answer. Autodidacts try new things, often learning negative knowledge instead of positive knowledge.

When you’re right about connections that others cannot see, you are called a creative genius. When you’re wrong, however, you’re often labelled mentally ill.

This comes back to Keynes: “Worldly wisdom teaches that it is better for the reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally.”

A great way to connect things is with a commonplace book.