The Death of the Lone Genius

GeniiusSlowly, very slowly, the research and some journalists are killing off the notion of the lone genius. You know, that American mythology of individual superiority applied to creativity. Like John Wayne’s rescue before the barbarians get to you, the lone genius is all nonsense. But the myth of the lone genius will require a cruel death of many cuts. It’s one of our most deeply held and cherished beliefs–even though dead wrong.

The latest cut is delivered by William Deresiewicz in The Atlantic. He writes rather bluntly that the “truth is that the geniuses weren’t really quite as solitary as advertised. They also often came together—think of the Bloomsbury Group—in situations of intense sustained creative ferment.”

Does it really matter?
That’s the question. And the answer is a clear-cut affirmative.

Organizations succeed—or fail—based on their innovativeness. Leaving creativity or innovation to the thinking of a lone genius is a set-up for failure. Yet, many still think of themselves as not very creative, or not an especially capable problem solver. If all of that were true, most organizations would be in a highly difficult situation. Instead, genius—and creativity—are at heart a learned, collaborative competency. That means that many can kick in their ideas to come up with needed innovation.

Talent is not the issue. It’s all about process and hard work. The 3M folk have understood that for generations. Under the guidance of David Kelley and his colleagues, their firm, Ideo, has put creativity and innovation into processes and now sell their services as a design and innovation consulting firm. And they’re very successful.

The real facts
Keith Sawyer, of Washington University, one of the leaders in the field of creativity research, has published 10 books and more than 50 scholarly articles in the field. What he’s found and identifies as the unifying idea is that even the seemingly solitary artistic pursuits, involve improvisation, collaboration and communication. That should play havoc with all the ideas about Einstein’s genius.

Among the myths that Sawyer debunks are several exceptionally relevant ones:

  • Creativity comes from the unconscious (“It is mostly conscious, hard work.”)
  • Creativity is spontaneous inspiration. (“Formal training and conscious deliberation are essential.”)
  • Creativity is the same thing as originality.  (“All creativity includes elements of imitation and tradition. There is no such thing as a completely novel work.”)

In another article, Sawyer takes issue with still more conventional thinking about creativity and genius. In a riposte to a NYTimes blog by Susan Dominus he writes that though she believes that creative people are more likely to be introverts; that students learn better when alone; and that solitary computer programmers write better code, research shows just the opposite in each of these cases.

I entitled my blog the death of the lone genius, but it’s obvious that there’s still a lot of killing off to take place. And the sooner the better for all of us. Especially for American business.


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