Single Harness

Blade, 6 x 7″, egg tempera on calfskin parchment by Altoon Sultan, an artist who is an exemplar of Deliberate Practice.

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.

–Albert Einstein

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.

From Quiet:

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.”

10 Replies to “Single Harness”

  1. A great post, and thank you, Deborah, for using me as a good example. I sometimes feel guilty for my pleasure in being alone, working, in turning down social events; my friends worry about me. I’m glad you don’t.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      I SO don’t worry about you Altoon. You are an inspiration for me. So active and loved on Facebook, but so focused and devoted to the Deliberate Practice that is your work.

  2. Yes. I too know the “guilty” pleasure of solitary creative work. It’s a prerequisite for me. We are tribe.
    Thank you Deborah for articulating this endorsement of the “solo spirit” so beautifully, and Altoon for your inspiring Practice.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Dear L, yes we are tribe. No matter where we reside. Thanks for your comment.

  3. Its good to see this point of view being extolled, Deborah. So often glossed over and ignored in the current rush to manic sharing and faddish proscriptions for pumping up your “creativity”. There is obviously a time and place for being out in the world living life, lest one sink into narcissistic navel-gazing (and if it weren’t for stopping in here at Slow Muse on occasion I wouldn’t be holding this exquisite Ken Price retrospective catalogue in my hands right now, for instance 😉 Thank you!) I love my friends and colleagues, and the cosmopolitan hum of working in places like NYC and Montreal. But without long stretches of solitary pursuit, its impossible to find a path to anything resembling a singular line of inquiry. Much less a way to whats deeply real in our own hearts.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Walt, thank you for your thoughtful additions to this thread. It is a delicate balance that I seek too. I love cities and city living, but I also love and must have solitude every day.

      On another note, I am thrilled that you too are basking in that fabulous Ken Price catalog. It is one of the best that I’ve seen in years, and of course I adore Price’s work and attitude. He was someone quite extraordinary.

      All the best to you.

  4. This so speaks to me. I cowered, decades ago, when teachers gave group assignments, yearning to just “do it on my own.” And now, I still yearn for the quiet and space to think.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      I had the same response. Just not my preferred way of working. Thanks for stopping by.

  5. I just completed that chapter in Cain’s book (took me long enough to get around to reading it, finally). And I thought, “Deliberate Practice. Yes!!” It’s how one gets to the 10,000 hours of practice towards expertise. You can’t easily do that with a group.

    Thanks for this encouraging and inspiring post.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Ann, Thank you so much for your thoughts and kind words. I loved that phrase immediately too. So simple (and yet not easy.)

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