Creativity Finds Its Genesis Alone

Image by Camila Dal-Ri Brugnera

Society values collaboration and groupthink in our decision making and increasingly attention-based popularity driven social web, but a collaborative culture repels creativity. We are not good for me (at least from a creative standpoint).

A study from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Gregory Feist shows that the most creative minds are introverted, they need quiet and alone time to prosper.

In essence, new directions aren’t necessarily crowdsourced. An idea starts somewhere, and usually that’s with an individual.

That individual may take the idea to a group of friends or the crowd for refinement. Or the idea may simply be vetted by peers.

The crowd can approve or simply ignore creative genius. In fact, it’s more often the latter, in my opinion. Again, groupthink rewards safety, specifically ideas that seem less risky, and anything new by its very nature offers more risk.

Clyfford Still was a painter in the 20th century, and is now becoming influential after death. Why? Because the City of Denver has built a museum in his memory, adding a level of safety to him, and helping to promote his works.

Still Denver image by Neil Chace

Still bequeathed his entire life’s work to the City of Denver with the condition that they not be separated. In the end Denver invested.

Now that the City of Denver has made it safe, people are discovering Still’s works.

However, you still have to market ideas. I think the Still example shows that ideas and creativity need to be circulated to be accepted or rejected.

Just like a book cannot be written and simply published, we need to find ways to get our creative ideas out into the world. They may not always be loved. They may simply become the best kept secret, but without risk, they will simply not benefit others, nor will they benefit from the changes that come from criticism.

Creativity in isolation really helps no one in the end.

What do you think about creativity and groups?


  • I think it’s possible to be creative in a group setting, but it’s a group setting that’s meant for individuals. I’m thinking of the art classes I took when I was in college. My classmates and I spent hours together in the same room and enjoyed a camaraderie of shared suffering (standing in front of an easel for three hours or more quickly loses allure), but we were working on individual projects. I still had to spend an equal amount of time if not more working on art outside of class. I would treasure the times my roommate went home for the weekends because it meant that I could sprawl across the floor with my pad of paper and supplies. I loved and still do love alone time. :)

    As for groups and groupthink, I don’t care for it. At all. I think people need to be able to think for themselves and to form their own opinions. It’s too easy to be led astray if you can’t think for yourself. It’s also next to impossible to be creative if you’re thinking the same things as everyone else.

    •  Agreed, and maybe this is what @twitter-14135237:disqus was referring to. In structured environs we create the mechanisms to succeed.  On the groupthink front, I am resigned to it being who we are in a tribal sense. I believe it’s unavoidable.

      • Maybe so, but I still think it’s a disservice to kids to teach them to think according to groupthink structures. It leaves them terribly ill equipped when confronted with a situation in which they have to make a choice all by themselves.

        •  I’ll give that an amen. I hope Soleil becomes a comfortable independent thinker.

          • With the parents she has? I think you can rest safe in the knowledge that she’ll be an independent thinker.

            I owe my mom a debt for her encouragement of creativity and independence. I also get to blame her when I make a decision of which she might not necessarily approve. ;)

            I can’t remember the article, but it talked about raising kids to be creative. Part of it said that the more creative kids always knew where the boundaries lie, but that they also always had room to grow. I’ll have to see if I can find it. I read it over a month or so ago.

  • This is why Fortune 500 Companies in total usually are cutting jobs vs gaining them. Once companies get a certain size they go more safe. The maverick that started the vision often gone. Will be interesting to see what happens with Apple. But the world is littered with such firms that peaked then slowly faded away. Or how many started and the ousted CEO had to come back (or one who left for whatever reason).

    I fully agree with your thesis Geoff. Groupthink waters things down..or burdens them. Just look at congress.

    •  It’s also why Fortune 500 companies acquire innovation. They kill it inside their walls. Very good analogy.

  • Not sure I agree with this thesis, but maybe I’m not clear on the foundation. First, groupthink doesn’t have to sacrifice individual identity. It just needs to bring structure (or find structure) to lever it. Secondly, ideas aren’t born from individuals, they are conducted and cultivated by them — they are rooted in evolution, collective consciousness  and social movements. So, people are conductors of creativity at various levels and points in time, but it takes groups (collective intelligence) to asses the value of ideas and how they can scale.

    Howie: The reason why companies cut jobs is because they make decisions in isolation, and silo the creative processes that actually allow them to preempt those decisions. While Apple no doubt was built (and rebuilt) on the shoulder’s of one man’s vision, it was his edict of collaborative creativity (no matter how rigid) that made the culture and company (and brand) that it is today. It’s also the reason why Apple was actually able to build a market around creativity — it changed behavior through the power of the collective, as reflected in its products and services.

    With that said, I have witnessed firsthand the disconnects between creativity and groups. I don’t see “groupthink” being flawed so much as the approaches to them, much if this having to do with how business and cultures have functioned coming off the post-industrial revolution. Just as marketing has been siloed, so has our means for understanding value across disciplines and departments. Creativity isn’t notional, and arguably never has been, and once we realize this fact, we will more tangibly be able to apply its value in everything that we do.


    • You hit a very astute point. @Faris:twitter  on his blog says talent imitates but genius steals. Meaning it is very rare anything is completely created in isolation. I think @geoffliving:twitter will agree.
      Everything we attribute to one or two people as the ‘inventor’ almost always arises from work started by someone else. The Wright Bros couldn’t fly unless they had all the other people’s failures before them to learn from. The IPod came from the SONY Walkman which came from the Boombox. Facebook surely didn’t invent the social network. In fact it really is just a glorified bulletin board originating with the old news groups.

      Which I view this as big scale group think. Maybe not actually structured.

      You also in your own way explained why things get watered down when companies get big. Even if they come up with something brilliant they often are sluggish to move. We all see auto concepts we would buy today if it was in the show room. Then we see the production car and say ‘really?’ because manufacturing had to meet a price point so you can buy it. Yet the car company still fostered the creativity in the advanced design group. Even if they couldn’t execute something affordable for us from that work.

    •  Not so sure I agree with you. Even in creative crowdsourcing environments, though structure is created for designers who produce logos, videos, etc., they still end up creating alone.  You need the group to accept the idea. You may innovate off the group’s needs, but sooner or later someone takes the ball and moves it forward a lone and then brings it back to the group. That’s the point, the thesis. 

      Still I respect the dissenting point of view. None of this is really science, its all based off of studies. We don’t understand ourselves still sociologically.

    • Odd, but I was having a somewhat similar conversation with an acquaintance the other day about how we need to rethink creativity.

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