I am a horse for single harness, not cut out for tandem or teamwork…Full well do I know that in order to attain any definite goal, it is imperative that one person should do the thinking and commanding.
Great quote, and a worthy introduction to the chapter on “When Collaboration Kills Creativity” in Susan Cain‘s book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Cain is an advocate for doing things that are out of fashion and out of step with contemporary mores, and I am deeply aligned with her point of view. Over the course of my lifetime I have seen the culture of America drift steadily away from the solitary agent to current models that only do collaboration, teamwork and collectivism. Education, corporate work practices and creative thinking all reflect a significant shift in how problems are solved and progress is made. But as Cain points out so eloquently, the predominance of the group mentality doesn’t work for everyone, and it can actually stifle creativity and productivity.
One example Cain discusses is the work of Anders Ericsson. He and his colleagues have researched this question: How do extraordinary achievers get to be so great at what they do? What they found was that the strongest predictor of skill among chess players is “serious study alone.” Grandmasters typically spend 5,000 hours—five times more than intermediate-level players—studying the game by themselves during their first ten years of learning to play.
What’s so magical about solitude? In many fields, Ericsson told me, it’s only when you’re alone that you can engage in Deliberate Practice, which he has identified as the key to exceptional achievement. When you practice deliberately, you identify the tasks or knowledge that are just out of your reach, strive to upgrade your performance, monitor your progress, and revise accordingly…
Deliberate Practice is best conducted alone for several reasons. It takes intense concentration, and other people can be distracting. It requires deep motivation, often self-generated. But most important, it involves working on the task that’s most challenging to you personally. Only when you are alone, Ericsson told me, can you “go directly to the part that’s challenging you.”
Cain continues to explore the many ways in which collectivizing our creativity and problem solving doesn’t work. Citing research on the peer pressure that can sway a person’s point of view, Cain writes this cogent statement: “These early findings suggest that groups are like mind-altering substances. If the group thinks the answer is A, you’re much more likely to believe that A is correct, too.”
While I have consistently advocated for solitude on Slow Muse and continue to extol—and revel—in its benefits, I am also quick to acknowledge that it is often profoundly difficult. And what’s more, certain projects require collaboration.
Cain addresses this both/and in a recent article, The Rise of the New Groupthink, that appeared in the New York Times:
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.”