The Ploughshares Round-Down: “Not Everything We Need Is In Ourselves”

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B1TRDNaIYAAYGDo Creation is often imagined as inherently isolated and intimate: a Walden Pond-esque activity improved by seclusion and destroyed by wifi, phone calls, and . . . well, friends. So I’ve been thrilled this month to see a few books being celebrated for challenging the Lone Genius Myth: Walter Isaacson’s The InnovatorsJoshua Wolf Shenk’s Powers of Two, and Stephen Johnson’s How We Got to Now. All three contradict the myth by emphasizing the creative significance of collaboration, connection, and incremental societal change.

Many of us have been enticed at some point by the Lone Genius Myth: wanting to believe that the world’s significant successes were achieved by a creator who was holed up in a spare room with only a beaker, a cup of coffee, or a pen for company. Such romantic scenes get perpetuated by author interviews and bite-sized bios that leave out any of the banal details that would mar them. But why are we drawn to this myth in the first place? Why do we want it to be true?

In part, it’s what Joshua Wolf Shenk has called “our cultural obsession with the individual,” which he traces back to the sixteenth century, when

this model of a man alone being the center of our experience emerged . . . as a way of combatting this extreme effacement of individual dignity that had been dominant for so long[.]

More importantly, Shenk notes, the Lone Genius just makes a good story. It’s “a hero’s journey,” which is much more tellable, trackable, and share-able than the intricacies of networks and random connections that actually lead to great results.

I would add that we’re also easily seduced by sweet-sounding maxims that confuse the Value of the Individual with an Effacement of Community. This is why Austin Kleon’s black-out poem (featured above) was so apt as an accompaniment to his post about Shenk’s Powers of Two.

“Everything you need is already inside of you” manages to be repeated and media-shared by the most intelligent among us, in spite of its patent falsehood. I mean, let’s start with the obvious: we need food, water, and shelter in order to survive. Some of us need medication, others need surgery, prosthetics, personal nurse aids. This is just the tip of the iceberg, and um–none of these is inside of us.

But I get it–the maxim isn’t referring to physical needs. Still, its intended assertions are equally ridiculous–and insidious. For instance, are we really to believe that everything we need to survive emotional, mental, creative, or ethical turmoil is already inside us? that we’re self-contained, self-sustaining, self-sufficient? In the thralls of such an idea, community implies failure. Reaching out–for support, ideas, conversation, love, touch, advice, collaboration, or basic human connectivity–becomes a sign of weakness, or at least of an inability to access one’s own “inner resources.” Everything you need is inside of you. Translation: if you don’t succeed (or survive), it’s because you’re basically too weak, stupid, or out-of-touch to dive deep into yourself and emerge drenched in Success.

Few of us would buy into this idea after thinking it through. But too often, we unwittingly buy in–particularly when we’re fed a steady diet of lone-genius narratives and vaguely aspire to emulate them; when we subconsciously equate creativity with isolation; when we confuse introversion or necessary solitude with antisociality or the supposedly-valorous refusal of input or support; when #amwriting tweets keep showing up in our feeds with romantic pics of spare desks and empty rooms; when we convince ourselves that if we were truly great writers, we’d have ideas aplenty just by virtue of being alive and alone.

In the midst of such subtle and subtly-debilitating ideas, we need reminders of the truth about great creations. Here are ten from Steven Johnson, Joshua Wolf Shenk, Walter Isaacson, and their reviewers/interviewers–a fine way to start your November:

10 Reminders about Great Creations:

  1. They build on other’s achievements.
  2. They come about “incrementally and in surprising ways.”
  3. They arise after hearing another perspective and/or having a critical “audience.”
  4. Many result from collaborative partnerships. And even when there’s animosity between partners, “it’s the kind of hatred that’s like flint and steel—the sparks that come out make it worth the while.”
  5. Behind great creations, “there are very often characters offstage who are not acknowledged,” even if there’s only one name on the book cover.
  6. They’re preceded by encounters with difference.
  7. They’re bolstered by both competition and collaboration, which are often entwined.
  8. The key to their creativity may be interaction between people. (Good or bad, interaction often leads to productivity!)
  9. They often arise because of historical ideas, current events, and pressing issues.
  10. They are inherently (always already) influenced by a complex network of experiences, ideas, happenstances, failed attempts, conversations, emotional ruptures, various (perhaps unintended) educations, and even by our very need for human connectivity.

As you launch into the final months of 2014, don’t eschew collaboration, support, and input for the sake of some Lone Genius Achievement. “Reach out. Not everything we need is in ourselves.”