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.

 

Solitude or Collaboration? Listen to NPR…

The radio show Big Picture Science just produced an NPR special about creativity, solitude, and collaboration. In the solitude corner: Susan Cain, best-selling author of the new book Quiet, arguing that solitude enhances creativity. In the collaboration corner, Keith Sawyer (me), author of the 2007 book Group Genius, arguing that all creativity is deeply based in collaboration.

Here’s the segment with my interview: http://bit.ly/K0Nqsk

Here’s a link to the entire one-hour show: http://radio.seti.org/episodes/Cosmos_It_s_Big_It_s_Weird

The Book Everyone is Talking About

A quick follow-up to my critical post about Susan Cain’s New York Times article:
Am I the only person who finds it ironic that the big newspaper ad for her book has this text and the cover image?

“The Instant New York Times Bestseller Everyone Is Talking About”

Quiet book cover

And at the bottom of the ad, I’m not sure if this is irony or just internally contradictory: the text announces that Cain’s New York Times article is the #1 most emailed NY Times Op-ed. Apparently in addition to talking a lot, introverts have lots of friends, too.

If you define “introversion” so broadly that it includes people who talk a lot and have lots of friends, then how meaningful is that definition, really?

Does Solitude Enhance Creativity? A Critique of Susan Cain’s Attack on Collaboration

I’ve just read a New York Times article by Susan Cain, author of the forthcoming book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. It’s the frustrated cry of a true introvert. Cain is clearly tired of everyone touting the benefits of collaboration; some people, herself included, just want to be left alone. And, she argues, those are the people who really come up with all of the great ideas.

There’s a grain of truth to Cain’s claim: Psychologists who study creativity know that it requires both solitude and collaboration. Exceptional creativity involves a lot of hard work, and that often happens in solitude. But Cain misses the big picture: Researchers have found that breakthrough ideas are largely due to exchange and interaction, and that’s because breakthrough ideas always involve combinations of very different ideas. (Matt Ridley famously calls it “ideas having sex.”)

In 2007, my book Group Genius was partly responsible for what Susan Cain calls dismissively “the rise of the new groupthink.” So I feel like I’ve been called out to respond. Yes, solitude plays a role in the creative process, but Cain overstates her case and misrepresents some of the research. Here are five specific examples of misleading or incorrect statements in her article:

1. Cain says that research by Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi found that exceptional creators are more likely to be introverted. Csikszentmihalyi was my graduate advisor, so I know that what his research actually found is that “Creative people tend to be both extroverted and introverted….[they] exhibit both traits simultaneously.” Reviewing all of the studies of creativity and extroversion using the “five-factor” personality model, most studies don’t show any relation between creativity and either introversion or extraversion. A few studies show a small relation, and for those, it’s always a positive relation between creativity and extraversion. (see my book Explaining Creativity for the details.)

2. Cain argues that Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple with Steve Jobs, is a classic introvert and he’s the one who actually invented the Apple personal computer. She grants that Wozniak never would have had the idea if he hadn’t been exchanging ideas with the Homebrew Computer Club, and he knows that Wozniak’s computer never would have been built and sold if it weren’t for his collaboration with Steve Jobs. It’s true that Wozniak had to go home and build the thing alone…but the real creativity came from collaboration.

And the Macintosh computer–which was a much more innovative product, with the graphic user interface that the one we still use today–resulted from Steve Jobs’ networking and idea exchange with Xerox PARC, the lab where the windows-and-mouse technology was first demonstrated. No solitude story there.

3. Cain is critical of the new trend of using collaborative groups in school classrooms. But in the New York Times article, she doesn’t give any reasons to dislike this, and doesn’t cite any research on the topic (maybe she will in the forthcoming book). Collaboration and learning is one of my research topics, so I know that there’s a huge volume of evidence–going back three decades–showing that collaborative interaction enhances learning. Of course, it has to be done in the right way, and no doubt there are teachers who form student groups in ineffective ways, but you can’t base an argument on a few ineffective teachers.

Regarding learning and mastery, Cain cites Anders Ericsson’s expertise research correctly; that research shows it takes 10,000 hours of mostly solitary practice to become an expert. And I too have argued that this is a prerequisite to a creative life. But that’s not where new ideas come from; that’s just the base of knowledge you need before you’re able to play the game, to combine great ideas and to recognize good ideas.

4. Cain argues that the “Coding War Games” study shows that solitary computer programmers perform better than programmers that don’t get any privacy. But I’ve done studies of pair programming–a core technique of the popular approach known as “extreme coding”–and the research convincingly demonstrates that pair programming results in better computer programs.

5. Cain is absolutely right about the research showing that brainstorming groups generate fewer ideas than the same number of solitary people working alone. But there’s an important exception to this research: if the problems are complex, or if they are visual or spatial, then groups usually outperform solo workers. And in most real-world organizations, problems are pretty complex–not the simple word-generation tasks used in brainstorming experiments.

Cain has read a broad range of important research, and she gets some things right. And she’s smart enough to realize that the more defensible position is that you need both solitude and collaboration. But in her desire to elevate the role of solitude, Cain’s article misrepresents the research. And the research has found just the opposite: collaboration is the key to creativity.

There must be a lot of introverts out there, because when I looked at her book on Amazon.com today, it’s one of the top 100 best selling books. Cain’s book will no doubt appeal to those readers who enjoy solitary work, who’ve sat in endless time-wasting meetings, who did a group project in high school with a bunch of slackers…come to think of it, that pretty much describes everyone, including me! But don’t let yourself be misled by your own bad experiences with groups. The science of creativity shows that exceptional, successful creativity depends on groups, networks, and conversation. If you hole up alone at home, I guarantee you will be less creative.