“Could you just leave me alone for ten minutes, I need to think about something. No, I don’t need help. What? How dare you call me an introvert! Don’t affix your labels to me. And don’t even think for a second that this means I’m an extrovert either. I can be inspired by whatever I damned well please.”
What do you picture when you think of inspiration? For many, images of collaboration come to mind – an artist and their muse, a brainstorming session between business colleagues, a band writing together, open-collaboration projects… the list goes on. Particularly in this day and age, we see creativity and inspiration as a group activity that leverages the old saying, “Two heads are better than one” to encourage us to solve problems by tapping on our neighbor’s shoulder.
However, what if we’re wrong?
History has shown a plethora of examples where isolation has been the key to an individual’s breakthrough. Douglas Adams reportedly used to lock himself in a hotel room with enough alcohol to wet a platoon when writing. Beethoven was a notorious recluse, often refusing to speak to or see even the closest to him when writing. Steve Wozniak admits that the key to his creation of the Apple I was spending inordinate amounts of time sitting alone in a cubicle at HP. Picasso is quoted as saying, “without great solitude, no serious work is possible.”
It would appear as though history may have a thing or two to say about collaboration. Yet in our time, we have become addicted to social sharing, collaborative thinking, and creative groups and in doing so, we have eroded our ability to connect with one of our most powerful creative tools: our minds. We’ve produced an army of creativity-zombies by idolizing the New Groupthink (a term coined by Susan Cain); all of us shuffling along in the same direction, yearning for the one thing we refuse to stop and use. We build institutions – schools, offices and social settings – that are designed to discourage isolation and reward the loudest among us. We look down upon those who desire a bit of breathing room for their minds – calling them hermits, recluses, odd-balls and outcasts.
Yet at times, we all need to step away from the rush and madness of our day-to-day to allow the space to tune out the clutter and focus on the task at hand. Eventually we can connect with colleagues to unveil and expand upon an idea, however, we must first ensure that we have an initial idea to discuss. Otherwise, 9 times out of 10, a group of clever people in a room with no briefing, thought time or outside inspiration, will attain little more than a lot of rambling and wasted time.
In a sense, I could just be stoking the flames of the old introvert vs. extrovert argument. Some people are powered up by the spotlight of the outside world and prefer to create in groups while others like to derive their energy from solitude and create their genius free from distraction. However, the reality is that even terms like introvert and extrovert are limiting. We should know better than to think that the complexities of our own mind can be drawn so black and white. Everyone falls at different points on the personality spectrum and for all we know, it may not even be a spectrum. The timid newt in the room could draw all their inspiration by observing others and the brazen loudmouth could just be buying time to go home and think.
Everyone has their own way of thinking. This article is not a call for you to lock yourself in a room of complete isolation the next time you need ground-breaking innovation. That would be as ridiculous as locking yourself in a room full of loud, alpha-personalities attempting to reinvent an industry (which no responsible corporation would ever do… right?) This isa call to realize that different people work in different ways and that as leaders, managers, educators, collaborators and friends, it is our responsibility to encourage all types and foster innovation from any source of inspiration.
Ironically, if you held a gun to my head and asked me my personality type, I would probably have to call myself an extrovert. However, I write this article, sitting alone in my apartment after four failed attempts to write it at my office. I love a good brainstorming session as much as the next person, however, sometimes the world just needs to shut up.