There’s an iconic photograph of Steve Jobs, taken during the very early, successful days of the company he helped start: Apple.
In the photo you can see Steve sitting in his home, only a lamp, a sitting pad, a few vinyl records, a record player, and a notebook sitting in the room with him. Apart from those few items, the hardwood floor and walls are bare. There’s no couch, no television or radio, no coffee table, nothing like that.
The photo is iconic because it makes Steve look so powerful, so all-knowing and wise. His position, upright with legs crossed, makes it appear as though Steve has obtained some level of higher enlightenment.
This is an important photo. Not because it’s of the brilliant Steve Jobs, but because it symbolizes countless other photos and images of historical, creative geniuses throughout time. And there’s a huge problem with that.
How often do we imagine these genius creatives, sitting in their home or studio, contemplating the next big thing? If you think of nearly any creative great, this is likely how you’re going to imagine them.
It’s not difficult to imagine the likes of Walt Disney, Pablo Picasso, Georgia O'Keeffe, or Thomas Edison in these moments of deep insight or masterful work. It’s also easy to imagine these masters in these moments entirely alone. They are, after-all, the major masters of their craft, the geniuses behind the glass.
When we imagine these thinkers like this – sitting or working by themselves – we create a scenario around creativity that isn’t entirely true. This belief can hurt our own ability to achieve creative mastery.
The greatest creatives hardly ever work alone. If you think you can go alone on the path to ideas that matter, it’s time to think again.
One of the most notably stories around the myth of the lone genius comes from Thomas Edison, best known for his work on the first, practical light bulb. Notably, Edison is quoted as having said: “I have not failed 10,000 times—I’ve successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.” Images of Edison spending countless days or weeks working at his desk on the light bulb readily come to mind. Yet, it wasn’t Edison alone who made all reportedly 10,000 attempts.
In his book, The Myths of Creativity David Burkus shares with us the truth on the matter:
“Edison was no lone inventor, but rather he compiled a team of engineers, machinists, and physicists who worked together on many of the inventions we now attribute to Edison alone….As their work progressed, the team quickly realized the power behind Edison’s name….according to Francis Jehl, Edison’s long-time assistant, those inside knew that ‘Edison [was] in reality a collective noun and [meant] the work of many men.'”
In their 1995 report titled “Deconstructing the Lone Genius Myth,” researchers Alfonso Montuori and Ronald Purser explored the psychological and social-economical reasons why the myth of the lone genius persists, and what matters for generating truly great ideas.
The researchers explains:
“The romantic myth of the lone genius still prevails… This may be due to the fact that the image of the creative genius is closely tied to hyper-individualism… There is a fear, for instance, that learning to play another musician’s solos by heart, as the great innovator Charlie Parker did…might somehow weaken or contaminate one’s creative ‘purity’ with the possibility that one could turn into a carbon copy of the role model.”
As creatives, we want to believe that our work is entirely original and groundbreaking. The more unique and valuable our ideas are, the more likely we are to be associated with their impending success and fame.
We like the story of lone geniuses because we want to believe that great ideas are spawned from some deeper source of genius itself. If anybody can have great ideas, who will we have to celebrate as creative geniuses? If great ideas don’t come from within ourselves, how do we know they are worthwhile or not?
Of course, we know that creativity is not a gift bestowed on a lucky few. We know from ample research and psychology that creativity is a trait each of us are born with and carry through-out our lives. Believing that the lone genius is reality gives us a hero to worship or, more importantly, an excuse for when we are struggling to come up with ideas ourselves.
Montuori and Purser continue:
“Creativity takes place in groups, organizations, and societies…and can be sparked by interactions…we believe this does not diminish the role of the individual in the least, but rather addresses more fully the concern of individuals and the contexts in which they have to operate–contexts that are, after all, also composed to a large extent of other individuals.”
I’m all-too-familiar with the trap of believing in the lone genius.
Most of the independent work I do, I do alone. This blog, for example, I write entirely on my own. I designed the blog and programmed the template on my own. Many of the ideas for the posts are my own.
Except that’s not entirely true.
Without realizing it, much of the inspiration for this blog has come as a result of speaking with other creatives. The discussions I have – and the questions I’m asked ” spark the insights that keep this blog going.
With nearly all of the work I do, there’s someone behind the scenes inspiring me. Whether it’s a conversation I have with a friend or family member, or a piece of design work I see somewhere on the web. I am not doing this work on my own, it’s actually the result of hundreds of people throughout history each inspiring me in some way.
You, too, do not work alone. You may sit in a studio or room alone, you may solely be responsible for pushing the brush across the canvas or the keys on the keyboard, but it’s through your interactions with others that your ideas flow.
To truly be a creative genius, then, we must embrace working alongside others. Not all the time, but often. It’s through our interactions that our best ideas swell.