To learn is to broaden, to experience more, to snatch new aspects of life for yourself. To refuse to learn or to be relieved at not having to learn is to commit a form of suicide; in the long run, a more meaningful type of suicide than the mere ending of physical life.
Knowledge is not only power; it is happiness, and being taught is the intellectual analog of being loved.
— Isaac Asimov, Yours, Isaac Asimov: A Life in Letters
Fans estimate that the erudite polymath Isaac Asimov authored nearly 500 full-length books during his life. Even if some that “don’t count” are removed from the list — anthologies he edited, short science books he wrote for young people and so on — Asimov’s output still reaches into the many hundreds of titles. Starting with a spate of science-fiction novels in the 1950s, including the now-classic Foundation series, Asimov’s writing eventually ranged into non-fiction with works of popular science, Big History, and even annotated guides to classic novels like Paradise Lost and Gulliver’s Travels.
Among his works were a 1,200 page Guide to the Bible; he also wrote books on Greece, Rome, Egypt, and the Middle East; he wrote a wonderful Guide to Shakespeare and a comprehensive Chronology of the World; he wrote books on Carbon, Nitrogen, Photosynthesis, The Moon, The Sun, and the Human Body, along with many more scientific topics. He coined the term “robotics” and his stories led to modern movies like I, Robot and Bicentennial Man. He wrote one of the most popular stories of all time: The Last Question. He even wrote a few joke books and a book of limericks.
His Intelligent Man’s Guide to Science, a 500,000 word epic written in a mad dash of eight months, was nominated for a National Book Award in 1961, losing only to William Shirer’s bestselling history of Nazi Germany, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.
His science-fiction books continue to sell to this day and are considered foundational works of the genre. He won more than a dozen book awards. His science and history books were considered some of the best published for lay audiences — the only real complaint we can make is that a few of them are outdated now. (We’ll give Asimov a pass for not updating them, since he’s been dead for almost 25 years.)
In his free time, he was reputed to have written over 90,000 letters while keeping a monthly column in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction for 33 years between 1958 and 1991. Between the Magazine and numerous other outlets, Asimov compiled somewhere near 1,600 essays throughout his life.
In other words, the man was a writer through and through, leading to a question that begs to be asked:
What can we mortals learn from the Prolific Mr. Asimov?
Make the Time — No Excuses
Many people complain that they don’t have time for their passions because of the unavoidable duties which suck up every free moment: Well, Asimov had duties too, but he got his writing career started anyway. From 1939 until 1958, Asimov doubled as a professor of biochemistry at Boston University, during which he completed 28 novels and a list of short stories long enough to fill most writers’ entire career. He simply made the time to write.
In a posthumously published memoir, Asimov reflects on the “candy store” schedule implanted on him by his father, who’d worked long hours running a convenience store in New York after emigrating from Russia. As Asimov became a professional writer, he kept the heroic schedule for himself:
I wake at five in the morning. I get to work as early as I can. I work as long as I can. I do this every day of the week, including holidays. I don’t take vacations voluntarily and I try to do my work even when I’m on vacation. (And even when I’m in the hospital.)
In other words, I am still and forever in the candy store. Of course, I’m not waiting on customers; I’m not taking money and making change; I’m not forced to be polite to everyone who comes in (in actual fact, I was never good at that). I am, instead, doing things I very much want to do — but the schedule is there; the schedule that was ground into me; the schedule you would think I would have rebelled against once I had the chance.
Know your Spots, and Stick to those Spots
“I’m no genius, but I’m smart in spots, and I stay around those spots.”
—Thomas Watson, Sr., Founder of IBM
Even though he’d been writing in his spare time as a professor, Asimov was not doing any academic research, which did not go unnoticed by his superiors at Boston University. Asimov’s success as an author combined with his dedication to his craft had forced him into a decision: Be an academic or be a popular writer. The decision needed no fretting — he was making so much money and such a large impact as a writer, he knew he’d be a fool to give it up. His rationalization to the school was wise and instructive:
I finally felt angry enough to say, “…as a science writer, I am extraordinary. I plan to be the best science writer in the world and I will shed luster on the medical school [at BU]. As a researcher, I am simply mediocre and…if there’s one thing this school does not need, it is one more merely mediocre researcher.”
[One faculty member complimented him on his bravery in fighting for academic freedom.] I shrugged, “There’s no bravery about it. I have academic freedom and I can give it to you in two words:
“What’s that?” He said.
“Outside income,” I said.
In other words, Asimov knew his circle of competence and knew himself. He made that again clear in a 1988 interview, when he was asked about a number of other projects and interests outside of writing. He demurred on all of them:
SW: Do you have any time left for other things besides writing?
IA: All I do is write. I do practically nothing else, except eat, sleep and talk to my wife.
SW: Have you ever written any screenplays for SF movies?
IA: No, I’m no talent for that and I don’t want to get mixed up with Hollywood. If they are going to do something of mine, they will have to find someone else to write the screenplays.
SW: Do you like the covers of your books? Do you have any input in their design?
IA: No, I don’t have any input into that. Publishers take care of that entirely. They never ask any questions and I never offer any advice, because my artistic talent is zero.
SW: Do you have a favorite SF painter?
IA: Well, there is a number of painters that I like very much. To name just a few: Michael Whelan and Boris Vallejo are between my favorites. I’m impressed by them, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything – I don’t know that I have any taste in art.
SW: Have you ever tried to paint something yourself?
IA: No, I can’t even draw a straight line with a ruler.
SW: Do you have any favorite SF writers?
IA: My favorite is Arthur Clark. I also like people like Fred Pohl or Larry Niven and others who know their science. I like Harlan Ellison, too, although his stories are terribly emotional. But I don’t consider myself a judge of good science-fiction – not even my own.
Asimov knew and recognized his own constitution at a fairly early age, smartly seizing opportunities to build his life around that self-awareness in the way Hunter S. Thompson would advise young people to do years later.
In a separate posthumously published autobiography, Asimov reflected on his highly independent nature:
I never found true peace till I turned my whole working life into self-employment. I was not made to be an employee.
For that matter, I strongly suspect I was not made to be an employer either. At least I have never had the urge to have a secretary or helper of any kind. My instinct tells me that there would surely be interactions that would slow me down. Better to be a one-man operation, which I eventually became and remained.
Find What you Love, and Work Like Hell
To be prolific, he warns, one must be a
“single-minded, driven, non-stop person.”
— Interview with Isaac Asimov, 1979
Although Asimov was working the “candy store” hours and producing more output than nearly anyone of his generation, it was clear that he did it out of love. The only reason he was able to write so much, he said, was “pure hedonism.” He simply couldn’t not write. That would have been unfathomable.
One admission from his autobiography tells the tale best:
One of the few depressing lunches I have had with Austin Olney [Houghton Mifflen editor] came on July 7, 1959. I incautiously told him of the various books I had in progress, and he advised me strongly not to write so busily. He said my books would compete with each other, interfere with each other’s sales, and do less well per book if there were many.
The one thing I had learned in my ill-fated class in economics in high school was “the law of diminishing returns,” whereby working ten times as hard or investing ten times as much or producing ten times the quantity does not yield ten times the return.
I was rather glum after that meal and gave the matter much thought afterward.
What I decided was that I wasn’t writing ten times as many books in order to get ten times the monetary returns, but in order to have ten times the pleasure.
One of Asimov’s best methods to keep the work flowing was to have more than one project going at a time. If he got writers’ block or got bored with one project, he simply switched to another project, a tactic which kept him from stopping work to agonize and procrastinate. By the time he came back to the first project, he found the writing flowed easily once again.
This sort of “switching” is a hugely useful method to improve your overall level of productivity and avoid major hair-pulling roadblocks. You can also use this tactic with books to improve your overall reading yield, switching between them as your mood and energy dictates.
Never Stop Learning
If anything besides sheer productivity defined Asimov, it was a thirst for knowledge. He simply never stopped learning, and with that attitude, he grew into a mental giant who was more than once accused of “knowing everything”:
Nothing goes to waste, if you’re determined to learn. I had already learned, for instance, that although I was one of the most overeducated people I knew, I couldn’t possibly write the variety of books I manage to do out of the knowledge I had gained in school alone. I had to keep a program of self-education in process.
And, as I went on to discover, each time I wrote a book on some subject outside my immediate field it gave me courage and incentive to do another one that was perhaps even farther outside the narrow range of my training…I advanced from chemical writer to science writer, and, eventually, I took all of my learning for my subject (or at least all that I could cram into my head — which, alas, had a sharply limited capacity despite all I could do).
As I did so, of course, I found that I had to educate myself. I had to read books on physics to reverse my unhappy experiences in school on the subject and to learn at home what I had failed to learn in the classroom — at least up to the point where my limited knowledge of mathematics prevented me from going farther.
When the time came, I read biology, medicine, and geology. I collected commentaries on the Bible and on Shakespeare. I read history books. Everything led to something else. I became a generalist by encouraging myself to be generally interested in all matters.
As I look back on it, it seems quite possible that none of this would have happened if I had stayed at school and had continued to think of myself as, primarily, a biochemist…[so] I was forced along the path I ought to have taken of my own accord if I had had the necessary insight into my own character and abilities.
(Source: It’s Been a Good Life)
Still interested? Check out Asimov’s memoir I, Asimov, his collection of stories I, Robot, or his collection of letters, Yours, Isaac Asimov: A Life in Letters.