Why the Lone Genius Isn’t a Reality Today (and Why That’s Okay)

da_vinci_human11Galileo. Bach. Michelangelo. Da Vinci. Picture these geniuses at work, and you’ll most likely think of them isolated in small, dark rooms, furiously hacking away at their next piece or discovery. We praise them for the ways they have singlehandedly shaped our present, but part of our praise comes from the emphasis of the phrase
“singlehandedly”. “How come we don’t have any more Renaissance painters?” you ask. “Where did all the Hemingways and Shakespeares go?” “Where is the modern day Einstein?”

They’re inside you. But they lie dormant, and only a fraction of them can be accessed by you alone.

To tell the truth, most of the men and women we consider geniuses today, contrary to popular belief, weren’t holed up in a room alone when they made their earth-shattering discoveries or finished their most impactful masterpieces.  Along the way, many friends, peers, and bodies helped them along the way. It just so happens that those people didn’t get mentioned in the credits. So when you ask where all the geniuses went, they didn’t disappear. The advent of technology has just made it more apparent that most genius occurs from collaboration rather than solo work. After all, Steven Johnson says that good ideas rarely come from “Eureka!” moments. They exist in bits and pieces that, with the right interactions and combinations with other people, become golden.

This thought may be disappointing to you, since society often frames individual celebrities and academics as the sole creators of their work and praise people when they achieve that. (Think about the argument that people have been making about Beck winning album of the year over Beyonce; one writer vs. 22 writers per song seems pretty compelling). But humans have always had a knack for solving problems and coming up with new ideas Where-good-ideas-come-fromthrough cooperation and collaboration; we are inherently social beings and enjoy finding new and inventive ways of talking to each other. Startups always seem to be built by groups of friends, after all.

Johnson’s theory, the “slow hunch”, is a pattern that he has observed over years of working with exploring creative and innovative spaces in offices, and it essentially claims that most ideas lay dormant in our heads and take long periods of time to evolve into something useful. Those ideas also tend to require some activation energy, namely the collision of other “hunches” that people may have, to get the first feelings of something formative. I believe he’s probably right when he says that most impactful artistic and scientific innovations have arisen from the “historic increase in connectivity”. We need to be able to borrow, steal, and build upon each other’s “hunches” to really get somewhere. That’s what letters and telephones facilitated in the past, and it’s what social media sites facilitate now.

I think it’s important to dial back on the belief that the best work comes from the individual effort and talent. While it’s impressive, it’s usually not how things work out, and it only creates an unhealthy pressure on our younger innovators and thinkers. So yes, Beck’s songs were entirely written by himself, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that millions of fans still love Beyonce’s most recent album. If we want to become better thinkers, have better ideas, and be better at working, we have to acknowledge just how important collaboration is in the larger scheme of things.