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Woz on Creativity: Work Alone

Groupthink, the origin of originality, and why most inventors are like artists.

Last week, we took a look at what a 1962 Candid Camera elevator experiment reveals about the psychology of groupthink. More than vintage comic relief, however, groupthink can be the archnemesis of creativity, because creativity by committee is no creativity at all — just ask Stephen King, who famously advised aspiring authors to “write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.” In his modestly titled memoir, iWoz: Computer Geek to Cult Icon: How I Invented the Personal Computer, Co-Founded Apple, and Had Fun Doing It, computer legend Steve Wozniak, better-known as Woz, makes a bold case for the importance of intellectual independence in the creative process:

Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me — they’re shy and they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone — best outside of corporate environments, best where they can control an invention’s design without a lot of other people designing it for marketing or some other committee. I don’t believe anything really revolutionary has ever been invented by committee… I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone… Not on a committee. Not on a team.”

This, of course, should be ingested with caution — when taken out of context, it could easily become a distorted extreme. As Steven Johnson argues in Where Good Ideas Come From, innovation happens when ideas collide with one another, which can’t happen in isolation — an environment conducive to such collisions is essential for combinatorial creativity. But at the heart of Woz’s insight seems to be a prompt to silence groupthink and bake just enough quiet time into the creative process for the ideas that we’ve acquired through our interactions with the world and other people to collide and fuse together into something new, something “really revolutionary.” At least that’s how I’d like to interpret it.

Published January 18, 2012




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