By Susan Cain, New York Times, January 13, 2011
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.
One explanation for these findings is that introverts are comfortable working alone — and solitude is a catalyst to innovation. As the influential psychologist Hans Eysenck observed, introversion fosters creativity by “concentrating the mind on the tasks in hand, and preventing the dissipation of energy on social and sexual matters unrelated to work.” In other words, a person sitting quietly under a tree in the backyard, while everyone else is clinking glasses on the patio, is more likely to have an apple land on his head. (Newton was one of the world’s great introverts: William Wordsworth described him as “A mind for ever/ Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone.”)
Solitude has long been associated with creativity and transcendence. “Without great solitude, no serious work is possible,” Picasso said. A central narrative of many religions is the seeker — Moses, Jesus, Buddha — who goes off by himself and brings profound insights back to the community.
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.
In our "democratizing binge" we have fallen into a trap that ensnares many, especially in the west that better thought emerges when the thought is massaged by others. And there is some truth to that maxim. However, a group, by definition, will never reach farther than the most courageous and most creative of its weakest member.
Groups by definition are clusters of influence that want and seek and need to conform, that seek to belong. Consequently, the multiple perspectives rounds off the rough edges of any single thought, because the group has to "represent" the result of its deliberations.
For democracy, groups provide a kind of leven so that no radical thought is ever permitted.
However, no group has ever produced a world class poem, play, nocturne, or even an historic design of a world class building. Groups have helped to shape and to criticize and to "influence" world class creations, but original ideas emerge from single minds, working albeit in some kind of silent and imperceptible collaboration with its teachers, mentors, colleagues and culture.
This blog would never appear if it were dependent on a group deciding which topics to include, which analogies and illustrations and comparisons to exclude, and which nuanced perspective the piece will take.
Furthermore, there is for the writer, no "safety net" of collaborative others on whom to hang the negative feedback when it inevitably emerges. There is only "mea culpa" a piece of reality that society seems extraordinarily uncomfortable admitting.
When Scott Peck was writing his book, People of the Lie, he literally scoured the Pentagon looking for someone to take responsibility for the My Lai massacre of innocents by the U.S. in Vietnam. He found no one. The tragic black mark on American history came from a group, and not a single individual had to "come clean" for its occurence.
Avoidance of respsonsibility is one of the hallmarks of contemporary society, at least in the west. Decisions taken by "the board" or "the cabinet" or "the foundation" or "the corporation" or "the school" do not have a name on them, with whom others can and must debate. When those who study voting patterns, especially the significant decline in numbers of people actually casting ballots, wish to analyse the reasons behind those numbers, they often come up with extrinsic things like weather, poor candidates, apathy and illness or lack of transportation...However, the feeling of exclusion, impotence and calculated disinterest in the face of "groupthink" the essential method deployed by the governments they are about to elect is usually not part of the mix of motivations.
Individual responsibility, solo flyers...these are the stuff of court room dramas, emergency and operating room crises, classroom lectures and libraries filled with books written by single minds, working in private rooms, attempting to inhabit the "edge" of human enterprise and exchanges, through observing the light and dark sides of those conflicts, with a view to casting some interpretive meaning on those events. Of course, today virtually all of those dramas, as portrayed in movies and television, are the product of "groupthink" and some rise to the worthy. however, even within those "writing groups" it is the interventions of individuals that generate the substance and the nuances of those scripts.
We are doing our children a great disservice when we exclude serious and private and quiet time for reading, writing, doodling and reflecting as integral parts of the educational experience, tilting instead to too much time trying to teach "social skills" when most of those social skills themselves rely on individuals expressing original and interesting and comic and penetrating insights in ways that can be grasped and responded to in, once again, individual interpretations.
Let's not through the baby out with the bathwater, again!