Working Alone


Door into my zone of privacy, my studio

I am not the only artist out there voicing advocacy for the way of solitude. There are many of us who spend most of our days working alone and know that is the only way we can do what we do. But Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, has brought the topic to a larger audience.

From her article, The Rise of the New Groupthink:

Solitude is out of fashion. Our companies, our schools and our culture are in thrall to an idea I call the New Groupthink, which holds that creativity and achievement come from an oddly gregarious place. Most of us now work in teams, in offices without walls, for managers who prize people skills above all. Lone geniuses are out. Collaboration is in.

But there’s a problem with this view. Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption. And the most spectacularly creative people in many fields are often introverted, according to studies by the psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Gregory Feist. They’re extroverted enough to exchange and advance ideas, but see themselves as independent and individualistic. They’re not joiners by nature.

In her article, Cain highlights the necessary introverted approach of Apple’s cofounder Steve Wozniak:

The story of Apple’s origin speaks to the power of collaboration. Mr. Wozniak wouldn’t have been catalyzed by the Altair but for the kindred spirits of Homebrew. And he’d never have started Apple without Mr. Jobs.

But it’s also a story of solo spirit. If you look at how Mr. Wozniak got the work done — the sheer hard work of creating something from nothing — he did it alone. Late at night, all by himself.

Intentionally so. In his memoir, Mr. Wozniak offers this guidance to aspiring inventors:

“Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me … they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone …. I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone… Not on a committee. Not on a team.”

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Note: Today’s post is based on an earlier one from the Slow Muse archive.

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10 comments

  1. Cindy’s avatar

    Thanks, Deborah, for this post. As we both know from studying Enneagram types, there are those types who seem to feel more connected to themselves when they are with others and then types who feel more connected with themselves when they are alone. Having the ability to hold to oneself with others and at the same time enjoy solitude, seems like an ability worth having. I am always a little doubtful of people who are always out and about, spending as little time as they can by themselves. I just don’t know if you can have any real depth that way (or like you say, be truly creative). But on the other end, too much solitude can bring on a kind of folie de grandeur, and one can lose sight of her own humanity. We must work alone until we must work with someone else I guess. I like to think of you in your studio, the early hours of the morning, deliciously opening the door to your sanctuary (“zone of privacy”), the door that shuts out the world and shuts in the goddess Muse. Is it courage? It it obsession? Is it luxury? Is just plain necessary nourishment? Is it all of the above? My eyes never tire of connecting with your private creations. Perhaps that is where collaboration is at it’s very best.

    1. deborahbarlow’s avatar

      Thanks so much for this Cindy. Full of wisdom, ways of seeing things in a fresh light. So useful. xoxo

  2. dipittsburgh’s avatar

    Thank you Deb for sharing and Cindy what beautiful sentiment!

    1. deborahbarlow’s avatar

      Thanks Di for your words.

  3. olganorris’s avatar

    Yes, Deborah, having worked in a collaborative industry – publishing – but in a creative role, I know how critical the balance is. I was fortunate enough to have my own office in every position, and dreaded becoming part of an open plan group.
    Now that I occupy myself with making, I love to work by myself – and my husband too is a loner. We spend most of our life together talking very little, by other folks’ measures. On the other hand, while I was caring for my mother in her last years – when the relationship was difficult in the first place – I found my escape for part of a day a week to a print studio a great boon. The camaraderie kept me going.

    1. deborahbarlow’s avatar

      Like you, I live in a house of soloists, introverts. But those moments of cameraderie, the coming together, are also so important. Once again, a search for balance. Thank you for your comment.

  4. David Smith’s avatar

    Ahhh, it’s not just me! (Working alone gives little water-cooler insight to others of like mind.)

    I have a new day-job in an “innovations” lab that is open and noisy and filled with meetings and fragmented information, scattered methods, and a leader’s desire for creativity, collaboration and polished presentation to happen simultaneously. A corporate teambuilding party does not make a team. As Cindy says above, it’s probably more likely about sharing experiences here… and then diving back into the ‘dark’ room. :)

    1. Deborah Barlow’s avatar

      Thanks for this example David.

  5. David Smith’s avatar

    Also, I love the door.

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