The Myth of The Lone Genius

2 minute read

“For centuries, the myth of the lone genius has towered over us, its shadow obscuring the way creative work really gets done. The attempts to pick apart the Lennon-McCartney partnership reveal just how misleading that myth can be, because John and Paul were so obviously more creative as a pair than as individuals, even if at times they appeared to work in opposition to each other.”

Joshua Wolf Shenk (2014) The Power of Two

Very interesting piece, highlighting one of the myths around success: that lone geniuses exist in isolation and are somehow different from everyone else, even negating the critical value of the people around them.

In this case, the analysis focuses on “pairs”, but this behaviour and mismatch between perception and reality extends beyond two people in my view. The reason is simple:

The essence of their achievements was relational. If that seems far-fetched, it’s because our cultural obsession with the individual has obscured the power of the creative pair.”

Relational. We just work better with others. We are better with others. Full stop.

And the explanation is even more stark when you notice that these relations are more effective when are more different:

“Paul was meticulous and organized: he always carried a notebook around with him, in which he methodically wrote down lyrics and chord changes in his neat handwriting. In contrast, John seemed to live in chaos: he was constantly searching for scraps of paper that he’d hurriedly scribbled ideas on.”

I understand this might be difficult to understand if you’ve never lived this kind of relationship with someone of a drastically different psychological type. However, if you can bear the frustration of how the differences might anger you, the result is usually simply amazing.

Let me reiterate tho: while pairs like Paul and John, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Jobs and Wozniak, Jobs and Ive, Gates and Ballmer, Valentino Garavani and Giancarlo Giammetti, Massimo and Lella Vignelli, and so on, are way more visible than groups of people, it’s not necessary to have just one person. Might be a team. Might be a group. It’s just that individuals are very visible, pairs less so, and teams even less.

This adds to one of the many myths of success:

  1. Successful people know what they did to succeed — while instead it’s very challenging to analyze the factors leading to that success.
  2. There are lone geniuses — while in reality the individual is the visible part of a group.
  3. Success is a matter of a moment — while in reality it’s all about the months or years of preparation that weren’t under the spotlight.

We need to start noticing more about these biases. When we see one “genius”, let’s ask ourselves “who else is behind the scenes”. And maybe, we should try to see who is or could be the “other” person or persons.

Further readings