Is the “Lone Genius” Finally Dead?

In 2007, I published Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration, where I argued that collaboration is the most important driver of creativity. I called the book “group genius” because all of the research showed that the “lone genius” was a misleading myth. But what about those stories you’ve heard about solitary geniuses coming up with great ideas? Archimedes in the bathtub shouting Eureka, or Coleridge coming up with a poem in an opium-induced daze? These two stories, and others like them, are completely untrue. (As historians have known for many years.) When you scratch beneath the surface of any story about a big creative insight, you can easily find that the real story is one of collaboration and conversation.

I quickly learned that my one book wouldn’t be enough to kill the lone genius myth. The most powerful evidence of this appeared in 2012, when Susan Cain published Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Cain’s claim that solitude enhanced creativity fed directly in to our deeply held beliefs about the solitary genius, and her book sold incredibly well. Since then, in 2013 and 2014, I’ve read many more stories in magazines and newspapers, all based on the belief that creativity is driven by geniuses–what makes someone a genius, what we can do to be more like them, and how we can help our children realize their genius potential.

I’m delighted that we now have another book presenting the overwhelming evidence in favor of group genius: Josh Shenk’s new book Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Pairs, excerpted July 20, 2014 in the New York Times in an article titled “The end of genius.” Shenk makes many of the same points, and cites some of the same research and stories, that I did in my 2007 book. Many of his stories also appeared in an influential 2006 book by Professor Vera John-Steiner called Creative Collaboration. (All creativity researchers know that creativity is always based in collaboration.) But the lone genius myth is still alive and well. Shenk attacks the myth right up front:

The lone genius is a myth that has outlived its usefulness. Fortunately, a more truthful model is emerging: The creative network…or the real heart of creativity–the intimate exchange of the creative pair.

I show in my 2012 book Explaining Creativity that the myth of the genius is relatively recent: it emerged during the Romantic period. And pretty much all of the people we think of as natural, solitary geniuses were in fact deeply collaborative in their work: Shenk mentions Shakespeare, Freud, Picasso, and Einstein. For example, how many people know that Einstein did not discover the formula e=mc squared? It was well known to physicists already, years before Einstein’s 1905 paper about the formula, but the mathematical proof hadn’t been developed. It turns out that Einstein was a pretty bad mathematician, and he made lots of errors, and his proof wasn’t valid. (He often worked together with mathematician colleagues for that very reason.)  It wasn’t until 1911 that another physicist, Max von Laue, developed a full and correct proof. (Click here for more on this story.)

The evidence that collaboration drives creativity is overwhelming. Of course, some collaborations are ineffective and actually block creativity. To make sure your collaborations are the creative kind, it helps to read a book like Group Genius–where I draw out key lessons from decades of research–to help you make sure your collaborations are the creative kind.

I highly recommend Shenk’s new book Powers of Two. Given my own recent experience, publishing a similar argument that collaboration drives creativity, I am not that optimistic that Shenk’s book will kill the lone genius myth. But I hope so.


9 thoughts on “Is the “Lone Genius” Finally Dead?

  1. Since your keynote at ASEE in Honolulu (when I purchased Group Genius and had it mostly read before getting back to Connecticut), I have found you and your writing so valuable – AND believable / useful!!! Glad for this particular update.

    The thing I would seek is a true consideration of BOTH viewpoints. I expect that a Better Alternative (as the late Stephen Covey called it) would emerge – that both groups would accept as better that the one previously held. The one requirement: Both sides need to agree to the possibility of the better alternative AND honestly work on efforts to identify the same.

    I’m quite confident of this outcome; and if not, still believe the effort would only add clarification!

    1. The two sides I was referring to is the solitary vs. group genius. I was allowing for the fact that there might be a small solitary genius role improving group genius efforts or vice versa – indeed any combination of the two increasing the creativity. Obviously this is pure speculation on my part, with my being in the group genius believers at this point. I do believe strongly that effective groups working together will have better outcomes; but is there better creativity? I also know there are important individual efforts within an effective group effort; do they improve creativity?

      As noted in the original response, meaningful discussion between the two sides – seeking understanding, NOT defending original positions – can add understanding of creativity, including deciding one of the original positions is even more clearly correct …

      1. Of course, there are moments in the creative process when individuals are working alone. And during some of those moments, creative ideas do happen. But this straightforward observation is quite different from the way the lone genius myth is generally believed. In my research, every story about a solitary person having a big insight has turned out to be misrepresented–in fact, the big insight emerged from collaboration and conversation. Solitary people having small insights along the way is a part of the broader collaborative process that leads to the big insight.

      2. Totally agree!!! Still would expect worthwhile additions from discussions involving both sides, though.

  2. Offhand, I would posit that the notion of “lone genius” still exists because it is still ~part~ of the process. Yes, creativity needs inspiration from multiple sources. Yes, creativity needs an environment in which individuals are encouraged to collide with perspectives that they may not have seen on their own. That said, a group does not assimilate information- that happens inside an individual’s brain once they have the proper framework established to see the problem in all its facets. It happens with characteristic frequency when an individual has downtime and is not in a group setting constantly forced to take in and react to new stimuli. I would absolutely call into question anyone who said they came up with a great discovery completely absent outside input, but I would equally call out anyone who came up with a new idea right in the middle of a collaborative meeting as to whether they were paying full attention to the meeting the whole time or were not, in fact, wandering off on their own train of thought for a few seconds or minutes while the new idea precipitated.

    1. Yes, there is plenty of evidence that individuals often have small insights during alone time, and that these are an important element of the overall creative process. However, there is also substantial evidence that in many cases, creative solutions emerge from the interactional dynamics of the group, and cannot be said to be the individual creation of any one member of the group. In my book Group Genius, I describe many such stories from the history of innovation.

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