Do You Buy into the Myth of the ‘Lone Genius?’ Here’s Why You Shouldn’t

Do you think Steve Jobs was a one-off, ‘lone genius.’  It’s tempting to believe that, and according to most tributes to him, he fit that so-called model. Surely only a lone genius could changing four different industries, as Jobs did, in one lifetime. The more romantic tributes suggest he did this virtually singlehandedly.

Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak - courtesy of Bloomberg.com

L to R: Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, founders of Apple Computer.

Jobs obviously had an extraordinary life and career, but we make a great mistake if we portray him as the lone genius.

The reality is that Steve Jobs collaborated obsessively. Most of his pursuits were joint pursuits with others. Apple itself began as a close collaboration with Steve Wozniak. Without that collaboration, you might never have heard of either Steve. Later, Jobs pioneered the iPod and iPhone in collaboration with many at Apple, particularly Jonathan Ives, Apple’s chief designer.

Look at Steve Jobs’s own words about collaboration: “Process makes you more efficient. But innovation comes from people meeting in the hallways or calling each other … it’s ad hoc meetings of six people called by someone who thinks he has figured out the coolest new thing ever and who wants to know what other people think of his idea.” (emphasis added)

So why do we perpetuate the myth of the ‘lone genius’? Because it’s romantic, and it sells copy, that’s why.

But it’s also wrong, and it’s also dangerous.

The evidence is in everywhere that great innovation comes from collaborating.

Keith Sawyer, one of the world’s leading experts on creativity, says that “we’re drawn to the image of the lone genius whose mystical moment of insight changed the world. But the lone genius is a myth; instead, it’s group genius that generates breakthrough innovation. When we collaborate, creativity unfolds across people; the sparks fly faster, and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” His research shows that innovation results from a whole series of those sparks, not from just one or two lightbulb moments.

Bill Gates and Paul Allen - courtesy of Wired.com

L to R: Bill Gates and Paul Allen, founders of Microsoft.

The examples are everywhere too. McCartney collaborating with Lennon. Bill Gates and Paul Allen. Elton John with Bernie Taupin. Francis Crick and James D. Watson at Cambridge teaming up brilliantly to pursue and then decode the mysteries of DNA. The Wright brothers working literally as brothers trying idea after idea to ultimately achieve the first man-made flight. Thomas Edison and his team of some thirty collaborators and assistants in what many consider now America’s first innovation laboratory.

The list goes on and on.

Yet so does the myth.

Sir Ken Robinson, another world expert on creativity, argues that even in the cases where the creative person appears to be working alone, they are in fact interacting with others in all kinds of ways, maybe even unconsciously. “Even working alone,” he says, “there is an essential cultural dimension to creative work that is of profound importance”. All human lives are lived in “webs of significance,” and creativity is the process by which we form these webs. Sir Isaac Newton said it best when he acknowledged how he achieved what he achieved: he said the if he saw further than others, it was because he stood on the shoulders of giants.

A.G. Lafley, who led Proctor & Gamble (P&G) through the 2000s, helped resurrect P&G by making it one of the most innovative in the world. He says the biggest factor in the company’s new success was to shift innovation from an old-school R&D exercise into something truly collaborative. “Innovation is a team sport,” he said, and “diverse teams make breakthroughs,” not sole individuals. He therefore institutionalized within P&G a whole series of processes that required teams to pursue innovation.

One way he did this was to create a new innovation lab in Cincinatti now known as ‘Clay Street’ (a converted brewery, located on Clay Street). Here’s how Laffley puts it: “Clay Street is a methodology for bringing together people who haven’t workd together before to become a highly functioning team. All have great expertise. Some have very human egos. They learn how to submerge their egos, listen to each other, and build on each other’s ideas –quickly and without being critical of others and without the selfishness that the owner of an idea often exhibits.”

If it’s not clear by now, it should be: it’s time to bury the myth of the lone genius and grasp the urgent need to make innovation a team sport. If you’ve been raised in a culture that glorifies the individual, you may find this difficult.

If you’re still buying the myth of the lone genius (who is more than likely also a lonely genius), here’s another example of what the research has shown to be true:

“Isolation is bad for you. It poses dangers as serious as cigarette smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, or lack of exercise, one research summary concluded. Conversely, the more good partnerships you have in your life, the more likely you are to say that you experienced the feeling of enjoyment much of the day yesterday, that you recently learned something interesting, and that you’ve been doing a lot of smiling and laughing – all key measures of your happiness. Even having one strong partnership markedly increases your well-being over those who have none.” 1

 

Notes:

  1. Rodd Wagner and Gale Muller, The Power of Two, (Gallup Press, 2009), p. 2.