Sunday, January 29, 2012

The creative power of one

Jan 29, 2012

Introversion often fosters creativity by concentrating the mind on tasks in hand
By Susan Cain

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.

Such people are 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 founder Steve Jobs' death, we've seen a profusion of myths about the company's success. Most focus on Mr Jobs' supernatural magnetism and tend to ignore the other crucial figure in Apple's creation: a kindly, introverted engineering wizard, Mr Steve Wozniak, who toiled alone on a beloved invention, the personal computer.

Rewind to March 1975: Mr Wozniak believes the world would be a better place if everyone had a user- friendly computer. This seems a distant dream - most computers are still the size of minivans, and many times as pricey. But Mr Wozniak meets a simpatico band of engineers calling themselves the Homebrew Computer Club. The Homebrewers are excited about a primitive new machine called the Altair 8800.

Mr Wozniak is inspired, and immediately begins work on his own magical version of a computer. Three months later, he unveils his amazing creation for his friend, Steve. Mr Wozniak wants to give his invention away free, but Mr Jobs persuades him to co-found Apple Computer.

The story of Apple's origin speaks to the power of collaboration. Mr Wozniak wouldn't have been catalysed by the Altair but for the kindred spirits of Homebrew. And he'd never have started Apple without Mr Jobs.

But it's also a story of solo spirit. If you look at how Mr Wozniak got the work done - the sheer hard work of creating something from nothing - he did it alone. Late at night, all by himself.

Intentionally so. In his memoir, Mr Wozniak offers this guidance to aspiring inventors: 'Most inventors and engineers I've met are like me ... they live in their heads. They're almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone... I'm going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone... Not on a committee. Not on a team.'

And yet the New Groupthink has overtaken workplaces, schools and religious institutions. Anyone who has ever needed noise-cancelling headphones in her own office or marked an online calendar with a fake meeting in order to escape yet another real one knows what I'm talking about. Virtually all American workers now spend time on teams and some 70 per cent inhabit open-plan offices, in which no one has 'a room of one's own'.

Schools have also been transformed by the New Groupthink. Today, elementary school classrooms in the United States are commonly arranged in pods of desks, the better to foster group learning. Even subjects such as mathematics and creative writing are often taught as committee projects.

Some teamwork is fine and offers a fun, stimulating, useful way to exchange ideas, manage information and build trust.

But it's one thing to associate with a group in which each member works autonomously on his piece of the puzzle; it's another to be corralled into endless meetings or conference calls conducted in offices that afford no respite from the noise and gaze of co-workers.

Solitude can even help us learn. According to research on expert performance by the psychologist Anders Ericsson, the best way to master a field is to work on the task that's most demanding for you personally. And often the best way to do this is alone. Only then, Mr Ericsson told me, can you 'go directly to the part that's challenging to you. If you want to improve, you have to be the one who generates the move. Imagine a group class - you're the one generating the move only a small percentage of the time'.

Conversely, brainstorming sessions are one of the worst possible ways to stimulate creativity. The brainchild of a charismatic advertising executive named Alex Osborn who believed that groups produced better ideas than individuals, workplace brainstorming sessions came into vogue in the 1950s.

'The quantitative results of group brainstorming are beyond question,' Mr Osborn wrote. 'One group produced 45 suggestions for a home-appliance promotion, 56 ideas for a money-raising campaign, 124 ideas on how to sell more blankets.'

But decades of research show that individuals almost always perform better than groups in both quality and quantity, and group performance gets worse as group size grows. The 'evidence from science suggests that business people must be insane to use brainstorming groups', wrote the organisational psychologist Adrian Furnham.

'If you have talented and motivated people, they should be encouraged to work alone when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority,' he said.

The reasons brainstorming fails are instructive for other forms of group work, too. People in groups tend to sit back and let others do the work; they instinctively mimic others' opinions and lose sight of their own; and, often succumb to peer pressure.

The one important exception to this dismal record is electronic brainstorming, where large groups outperform individuals; and the larger the group the better. The protection of the screen mitigates many problems of group work. This is why the Internet has yielded such wondrous collective creations.

Marcel Proust called reading a 'miracle of communication in the midst of solitude', and that's what the Internet is, too. It's a place where we can be alone together - and this is precisely what gives it power.

Susan Cain is the author of the forthcoming book Quiet: The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can't Stop Talking.

The New York Times

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