"New Groupthink:" Is "joining" bad for creativity?

Can "joining" stunt creative outcomes? In the past decade as always-on, collaborative work has become the norm and it has simultaneously become harder to escape the daily intrusions of connected life, some bright people are asking for a collective time out from the crowd. Jaron Lanier, for example, offered this cheeky take on "wiki world," or the group, in his essay "Digital Maoism" of a few years back.

A core belief of the wiki world is that whatever problems exist in the wiki will be incrementally corrected as the process unfolds. This is analogous to the claims of Hyper-Libertarians who put infinite faith in a free market, or the Hyper-Lefties who are somehow able to sit through consensus decision-making processes. In all these cases, it seems to me that empirical evidence has yielded mixed results. Sometimes loosely structured collective activities yield continuous improvements and sometimes they don't. Often we don't live long enough to find out.

William Deresiewicz has connected solitude to a kind of know-your-own-mind leadership more recently. Ever the skeptic, Nicholas Carr suggests that digital media is changing us, and not for the better. And Susan Cain, who has excellent representation and book due soon (I'm buying it), offered a provocative take on group think at the New York Times over the weekend.

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. They’re extroverted enough to exchange and advance ideas, but see themselves as independent and individualistic. They’re not joiners by nature.

Keith Sawyer pushes back on his blog, Creativity and Innovation, labeling it, surprisingly, as an "attack."

I'm not at all surprised that Cain's work is drawing attention. Speaking as someone who works out what he thinks alone and not in a continuous exchange with others, her book, and the essays mentioned here, are a useful corrective to a narrative that a majority of people, energized by the group and skeptical of soloists, find perfectly natural. There are hazard to introverts of course, but I think that many, many IdeaFestival fans are similarly inclined to seek out that unexpected connection in a book - or in front of the canvas - or in page of equations - or, like I do, looking to the heavens over a period of months and watching the stars pivot about Polaris. As for whether individual or group work is more likely to lead to creative outcomes, who knows? I do think, however, that in this time and place, particularly in this time and place, introverts have something to add to the conversation.

Wayne


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