Susan Cain, writing in the New York Times, advocates for solitude and silence. She is the author of the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking.
Cain is responding to the faddish embrace of the belief that groups are always better than individuals. The Wisdom of Crowds, by James Surowiecki, was published in 2004. Around that time, the idea of "crowdsourcing" took off with various "great minds" embracing this statement:
Specialized expertise tends to be over valued. In fact, large groups, structured properly, can be smarter than the smartest member of a group. On average, the wisdom of crowds will come up with a better answer than any individual could provide.Thankfully, Daniel Tammet (see the book Embracing the Wide Sky) and others have critiqued this statement. The problem is "on average" — it assumes the crowd will have just enough expert knowledge.
Cain offers another excellent critique of group work gone wild.
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.I wholeheartedly agree with Cain: we have embraced groups despite the lack of solid evidence that groups are always or even most of the time better than solitary work. I'm sorry, but groups are miserable, lousy, horrible experiences. The only groups that function well are the groups that allow time for individual work. Truly individual work, not monitored groupthink that pretends to allow freedom and creativity.
Why do so many people love groups? Because popular people, those with charisma and a need to connect with others, tend to run our world. In their experiences, groups are wonderful. Basically, the world is often tailored by and for social butterflies.
Culturally, we're often so dazzled by charisma that we overlook the quiet part of the creative process. Consider Apple. In the wake of Steve Jobs's death, we've seen a profusion of myths about the company's success. Most focus on Mr. Jobs's supernatural magnetism and tend to ignore the other crucial figure in Apple's creation: a kindly, introverted engineering wizard, Steve Wozniak, who toiled alone on a beloved invention, the personal computer.The "star" is the man or woman in a team who can stand on stage and wow the audience. Sometimes that star is a great innovator, but often the social leader has a different set of skills. Those are important skills, but the innovator and creator often needs to be left alone to ponder wonderful, crazy ideas.
I've always needed a "star" to front for me. I'm not a social leader, I'm creative without the social skills necessary to promote my ideas and get them into the hands of others. Likewise, The Wonderful Wizard of Woz needed Jobs, a man who saw how to get ideas into the hands of millions.
The open source software (OSS) movement might be populated by thousands of Woz-like men and women. The problem is, the OSS movement doesn't have a Jobs. There are probably many reasons for this, but one of them is that Jobs and other social leaders thrive on extrinsic rewards. Those rewards include money, awards, and other forms of recognition.
Without a Jobs, Woz would have given away his ideas to a few dozen people. Jobs sold the Apple II to millions and changed the world. They needed each other, but Woz needed to work alone.
Woz wasn't antisocial or a hermit. He belonged to the Homebrew Computer Club and enjoyed the company of other men and women passionate about tinkering. Once a month, these individuals would gather and share information about the emerging "personal" computer. When members shared their enthusiasm for the Altair computer, Woz immediately set out to create a more affordable and more powerful home computer. He needed his small group of like-minded creators.
But, once inspired, he worked alone.
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 [Computer Club]. 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."My wife and I both work at home. Even when we are "at work" we each spend most of our time "alone" and focused on our tasks. We work with other people, but we work alone. That's something people overlook: you can be part of something while working alone most of the time.
As a technical content architect, my wife uses email and phone calls to verify information about highly technical product designs. She needs other people, subject matter experts, but she only needs them for brief moments. A project might require an hour or two a day of contact with others, or it might require none at all.
I'm a writer, a designer, a programmer, and a university professor. I'm also entrepreneurial. None of those activities requires constant contact with others. I write alone, not on teams. My stories and scripts are written alone. After they are written, that's when collaboration begins. I don't need a "team" until I've created something.
My columns are emailed to an editor, who then turns the text over to a magazine designer. Publishing is a "team" effort, but it is more like an assembly line than people realize.
As a professor, I teach alone. There is a department and a school, with faculty around to help and guide me, but I create a syllabus, I teach the course. I do this alone. Like most teachers at any level, I am not joined by my supervisor in the classroom.
Yet, we gather our students into "teams" and make them engage in group work. Strange, since no group is involved in most of the activities I do at the university. Even collaborating on research is nothing like what we ask of our students.
Our schools have also been transformed by the New Groupthink. Today, elementary school classrooms are commonly arranged in pods of desks, the better to foster group learning. Even subjects like math and creative writing are often taught as committee projects. In one fourth-grade classroom I visited in New York City, students engaged in group work were forbidden to ask a question unless every member of the group had the very same question.What a horrible approach to education. This is collectivism at its worst. The group and consensus are everything; the individual is disruptive and to be shunned. I hate using "consensus" as the ideal of all that must be right and equal. I make it no secret that I dislike groupthink and group mandates.
I'm an individualist. Yes, we should help others, but we must never lose ourselves to the group identity. Leave me alone and I'm much happier.
As a computer programmer, I'm clearly not alone:
Many introverts seem to know this instinctively, and resist being herded together. Backbone Entertainment, a video game development company in Emeryville, Calif., initially used an open-plan office, but found that its game developers, many of whom were introverts, were unhappy.
"It was one big warehouse space, with just tables, no walls, and everyone could see each other," recalled Mike Mika, the former creative director. "We switched over to cubicles and were worried about it — you'd think in a creative environment that people would hate that. But it turns out they prefer having nooks and crannies they can hide away in and just be away from everybody."My rejection of groups bothers some of my colleagues in education. They can't imagine that working alone is healthy, even necessary, for many people. Rejecting the group? That's politically incorrect, in addition to being strange.
But, I am most productive in my office, alone. I don't feel "energized" sitting around with other people. Interactions are exhausting. Spending an hour or two in a meeting leaves me shaking and anxious. This isn't about me being "autistic" or a "genius" — it is about me being my creative best when I am left alone to think.
Cain writes that I'm not alone. I'm not strange. Many of us, if not most of us, are at our best when we have private spaces in which to work:
Privacy also makes us productive. In a fascinating study known as the Coding War Games, consultants Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister compared the work of more than 600 computer programmers at 92 companies. They found that people from the same companies performed at roughly the same level — but that there was an enormous performance gap between organizations. What distinguished programmers at the top-performing companies wasn't greater experience or better pay. It was how much privacy, personal workspace and freedom from interruption they enjoyed. Sixty-two percent of the best performers said their workspace was sufficiently private compared with only 19 percent of the worst performers. Seventy-six percent of the worst programmers but only 38 percent of the best said that they were often interrupted needlessly.Yes, the study was of 600 programmers, but I bet the same is true of writers, painters, and many entrepreneurs. We are at our best when we have the solitude to think and reflect. We need time alone with our imaginations.
If I want to brainstorm, outline, map, and spend some time exploring what seem to be random connections… I want to brainstorm alone. Don't ask me to sit and listen to other ideas until I have first developed and defended my own ideas to myself. Let me argue with myself before I argue with others for my vision.
As Cain observes, brainstorming in groups is a special form of torture for many people:
Conversely, brainstorming sessions are one of the worst possible ways to stimulate creativity. The brainchild of a charismatic advertising executive named Alex Osborn who believed that groups produced better ideas than individuals, workplace brainstorming sessions came into vogue in the 1950s. "The quantitative results of group brainstorming are beyond question," Mr. Osborn wrote. "One group produced 45 suggestions for a home-appliance promotion, 56 ideas for a money-raising campaign, 124 ideas on how to sell more blankets."
But decades of research show that individuals almost always perform better than groups in both quality and quantity, and group performance gets worse as group size increases. The "evidence from science suggests that business people must be insane to use brainstorming groups," wrote the organizational psychologist Adrian Furnham. "If you have talented and motivated people, they should be encouraged to work alone when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority."Having a lot of ideas is not the same as having a lot of good ideas. Also, groups end up being dominated by personalities. I'm not going to fight some people. Personally, I'm more likely to walk away angry and do my own thing after dealing with a group. I've left meetings more than once and I'll leave meetings again in the future.
I do not care what the group thinks. I care what I think and I want to test my ideas.
Yes, I do need someone to help promote my ideas. I'll hire those people or form associations with them, but I don't want to be in charge of promotion. I want to have the grand idea, not the great sales pitch.
Admittedly, I do need people. I need my wife; she is my social connection. I also need the rare, short encounter with other creative people. But I don't want to be on a team that occupies shared space for hours on end.
I am not shy. I am independent.
Cain summarizes the solitary creative personality by returning to the example of Woz:
[Most] humans have two contradictory impulses: we love and need one another, yet we crave privacy and autonomy.
To harness the energy that fuels both these drives, we need to move beyond the New Groupthink and embrace a more nuanced approach to creativity and learning. Our offices should encourage casual, cafe-style interactions, but allow people to disappear into personalized, private spaces when they want to be alone. Our schools should teach children to work with others, but also to work on their own for sustained periods of time. And we must recognize that introverts like Steve Wozniak need extra quiet and privacy to do their best work.Alone doesn't mean that I am not building on the works and ideas of others. Wozniak read books and attended presentations about computing and the future. He worked among engineers. He simply had the freedom to be alone when he needed that special creative space.
The Internet allows me to read and read and read some more. I can learn a lot from the works of other people. I can do this without sitting in crowded, emotionally draining, meetings.
Please, let me work alone. I'll let you know when I'm ready for the ideas, opinions, and the assistance of other people.