Reading a recent New York Times Op-Ed piece by Susan Cain ("The Rise of the New Groupthink") transported me back over 20 years to what I then experienced as a transformative reading of British Psychotherapist Anthony Storr's book "Solitude, a return to the self." It's reading provided me with a my needed validation of my own solitary and introspective nature (preferring to do my work and thinking my myself, even while serving and respecting social groups, such as the laboratory I ran). Storr's book was a reaction against the popular psychotherapies of the 1980s which emphasized intimate interpersonal relationships as the chief, if not the only, source of human happiness. He made a strong case that the life of an average person, not just a familiar list of brilliant scholars and artists such as Beethoven, Kant, Newton, etc., could be greatly enriched more time spent alone.
In a similar vein Cain writes against the current assumption that creativity, particularly in business, requires the collaboration of group of people addressing the problem at hand. Her central illustration describes the origins of the Apple computer, It's creation required the support of a creative group of engineers and Steve Jobs' business sense, but the creative kernel of work and insight that put together the core of the actual hardware and code that ran it was done by Wozniak's solitary effort. Cain notes:
...brainstorming sessions are one of the worst possible ways to stimulate creativity...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... fear of rejection actives the brain's amygdala.
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.
...most humans have two contradictory impulses: we love and need one another, yet we crave privacy and autonomy....To harness the energy that fuels both these drives, we need to move beyond the New Groupthink and embrace a more nuanced approach to creativity and learning. Our offices should encourage casual, cafe-style interactions, but allow people to disappear into personalized, private spaces when they want to be alone. Our schools should teach children to work with others, but also to work on their own for sustained periods of time. And we must recognize that introverts like Steve Wozniak need extra quiet and privacy to do their best work.
Before Mr. Wozniak started Apple, he designed calculators at Hewlett-Packard, a job he loved partly because HP made it easy to chat with his colleagues. Every day at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., management wheeled in doughnuts and coffee, and people could socialize and swap ideas. What distinguished these interactions was how low-key they were. For Mr. Wozniak, collaboration meant the ability to share a doughnut and a brainwave with his laid-back, poorly dressed colleagues — who minded not a whit when he disappeared into his cubicle to get the real work done.