The solitary genius doesn’t exist …and that’s a good thing

Of all the myths surrounding creativity and innovation, the illusion of the ‘solitary genius’ is one of the most persistent ones.

The myth

The most brilliant new innovations can be attributed to brilliant creative minds, who single-handedly gave us life-changing breakthroughs, despite all the people trying to hold them back. Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci… all mavericks who changed our world with their almost supernatural creativity.

This heroic portrayal of the lone wolf genius who changes our world for the better against all odds certainly appeals to the imagination. It isn’t very accurate though…

Reality

While the inventors above were undeniably extraordinary minds who had a tremendous impact on the world as we know it, none of them could’ve done it alone. All of them had help. Lots of help.

Thomas Edison, whose name is almost synonymous with innovation, has thousands of patents on his name, yet could not have done it without his team. He employed many people in his lab and ‘his’ inventions were really a team effort. The true power of ‘creative geniuses’ like Edison is not that they come up with brilliant ideas out of thin air. Just like Steve Jobs, Edison knew how to spot ideas with potential and how to build a team around it to realise this potential. Not a skill that should be underestimated by the way. In creative sessions and projects, I’ve noticed time and again how most people fail to recognize brilliant ideas with potential while they eagerly rally behind fairly uninteresting (and usually ‘safe’) ideas. Spotting ideas with potential is not something that comes naturally to most.

Praising the big names in history is fine. But glorifying their achievements as the result of one creative genius coming up with brilliant ideas effortlessly is harmful.

The myth of the extraordinarily talented creative is harmful for two reasons: first, it diminishes the hard work that many ‘brilliant minds’ put into their breakthrough innovations. They were not just lucky. Their flash of insight was the result of many hours reading, researching, pondering, discussing and sketching. Many hours of hard work preceded the single ‘Eureka’ moment.

Secondly, and more importantly, the image of the creative genius deters many people from even trying to pursue a creative solution. The grandiose stories of inventors intimidate people. They are tempted to sigh: “I will never be able to do that. I’m not a creative genius.” The more people think they shouldn’t even bother, the harder it is to innovate in an organisation.

Not only did most of the iconic inventors we all know have lots of people helping them out while working on their next big thing, they also relied heavily on the work of all those before them. Not surprisingly, Newton (pretty much the personification of the ‘lone genius’ who got his major insight by seeing an apple plunge to the ground) wrote:

“If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”

A creative idea is always a combination of existing elements; often ideas, techniques and materials invented by others.

Even Da Vinci piggybacked on many great ideas that were not his own. He famously wrote down all interesting ideas he heard about in his notebooks. He eagerly used these notes for inspiration. Leonardo regularly reread his notes and combined insights and ideas to create the novel ideas we now remember him by.

How to be creative

Realising how the solitary genius does not exist may burst your bubble, but it also enables you to take advantage. We can learn from the not-so-lonely geniuses mentioned above.

1. Be curious and take full advantage of the flood of information
Learn from Da Vinci’s frantic note-taking and make full use of all the information that is out there. Luckily we live in a time when the whole world is more connected than ever. There is no shortage of information and ideas. What would take Leonardo many precious hours of researching is now only a few mouse clicks away. You (literally) have more information at your fingertips than a US president only 25 years ago.

Make use of this abundance of information and ideas. A good idea soon sparks countless other interesting ideas. Just look at the premise of Airbnb; renting out and booking private accommodations. It did not take long before ‘the Airbnb of parking spots’ arrived, just like ‘the Airbnb of storage’, ‘the Airbnb of cars’ and even ‘the Airbnb of swimming pools’. Ideas lead to ideas.

Make use of this principle. Read lots of different things, be open to new ideas and try to challenge your assumptions.

2. Share your ideas
Big thinkers tend to share thoughts with their peers. If nothing else, explaining your idea to others forces you to think it through. Every time you share your thought, you sharpen it.

Don’t keep your ideas to yourself. Even if you think you have a brilliant idea that will change the world. If you’re serious about innovation, share your ideas. Others can offer a fresh perspective and can help you improve the idea. They’ll point out potential flaws and offer ideas on how to make it even better.

Don’t be afraid they’ll steal your idea. Implementing an idea is hard work. It’s tough if you came up with it yourself, it’s a nightmare if it’s someone else’s idea. People tend to reserve what limited time and energy they have for ideas they came up with themselves.

3. Fight for ideas that deserve your full attention
If even Edison, Newton and Da Vinci needed the help of others, it would be foolish to think you can do it alone.

Having said that, to bring a truly innovative idea to fruition you do need a ‘creative dictator’ who recognizes great ideas and is willing to fight to make them a reality. Total democracy can kill promising ideas just like refusing to share your ideas can.

A group of people that only acts when unanimity is reached quickly becomes a toothless tiger that only yields horrific compromises. Channel your inner Steve Jobs and fight for the ideas you believe in. Pick your battles wisely and only spend your precious time and energy on the truly unique ideas that have the potential to make lots of impact.

 

Start innovating with others

You need other minds to realise meaningful innovation. So why not organise a truly effective creative session with some colleagues, friends or peers? Don’t worry about how to make such a session worth everyone’s while. We’ve got you covered.

Brightstorming is a web application we created to help teams generate creative ideas effectively. Interested? Send us an email (if you’ve not done so already) and we’d be more than happy to tell you all about the possibilities.

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