Don’t Fall for the “Lone Genius” Fallacy!

Somehow, we’ve come to expect creative people to work alone. Yet many of the most successful of us seek out, commit to, and cherish relationships with other artists who help us with our work.

Van Gogh?

Sure, there are some folks like Van Gogh who are so hard to get along with that they end up alone. But even Van Gogh, in spite of his violent rages, yearned, like most creatives, for an artist colony.

In fact, Van Gogh convinced Gauguin to come start an artists’ colony in southern France with him. After Van Gogh supposedly chased Gauguin around with a knife, Gauguin decided to try Tahiti instead.

Einstein, the Genius from Nowhere?

Then there’s Einstein, the poster child for a creative scientific genius. We all know he worked in obscurity in the Geneva patent office before publishing an astonishing series of revolutionary papers in 1905, his “year of miracles.”

What hasn’t made it into the popular mind, however, is how Einstein surrounded himself with others to exchange ideas and stimulate each others’s minds. 

As Howard Gardner says in Creating Minds: An Anatomy of Creativity as Seen Through the Lives of Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, Graham and Gandhi:

“…All creative activity grows, first, out of the relationships between an individual and the objective world of work and, second, out of the ties between an individual and other human beings.”

A Convenient—But Crippling—Fantasy

Why would so many people subscribe to the false idea of the “solitary, tormented genius”? I suspect it appeals to our society's cult of the individual. In one sense, it’s empowering to believe that you can do great work all alone.

In another sense, though, the fantasy of self-sufficiency is a trap. With rare exceptions, creative people of all kinds like to be around others. 

Creative minds seek company not only because humans are social animals, but also because original ideas grow best in soil where they can be cross-fertilized. Working together, these creatives know they can each help each other become ever more the artists they have the potential to become. 

It Takes Two to Sharpen!

In Jewish tradition, students of the Torah (the Hebrew scriptures and commentaries) are encouraged not to study alone!

Rather they study with a partner. A favorite metaphor describes the advantages of not just absorbing knowledge, but engaging in spirited discussion (and even argument) about what you are learning:

“When you wave a sword in the air, it never gets sharper. But if two of you strike your swords against each other's, both swords are sharpened!"

Storytellers: Work Together for the Good of All!

If painters, who each paint alone, find it helpful to work together, imagine how much more important coaching-partners are to storytellers—who work in an artform based on real-time communication!

For myself, I find that my stories (and my ideas about storytelling) grow best when I spend a fair amount of time with others, talking through ideas, trying out stories, and asking and answering questions. 

If you are truly happiest working alone, that’s great. But most of us work better within at least some creative-support partnerships. In the grand tradition of artists everywhere, most of us work better when (at least some of the time) we sharpen our minds by witnessing and contributing to the better functioning of others.