One of the enduring myths of our world is that people who we consider to be Outliers, of genius level, typically are solitary, isolated and unique, somehow disconnected from everyday reality.
The effect of this myth is that it gives us the idea that we have to be a certain kind of person to be a genius: to be able to develop disruptive innovation, to create new business solutions, come up with mind-exploding solutions to tough problems or to invent new products.
The tale of the tortured artist, locked up in their tower, slaving away on the masterpiece just reinforces this idea. However, reality just doesn’t back this up.
From the art world, the best-known example is probably Van Gogh… you know, who went to live in the country, went mad, cut off his ear and created work miles ahead of his time.
But Van Gogh WASN’T isolated. He was in regular and in-depth contact with his brother Theo, he had a strong collegial relationship with Gaugin and he was involved in the greater circle of the Impressionists and post-impressionists. As art historians will now tell you, what can Gogh did was inevitably connected to what went before him and what others were doing around him during the same period.
What this means is that, for ordinary people who have families, friends and lives, one of the biggest obstacles to being highly creative in all or any ways is removed. You don’t HAVE to be tortured, you don’t HAVE to be alone.
One of the interesting aspects of the research that Allen Gannett did for his book The Creative Curve, tracks the idea that all creative people in business and in art, have a very specific type of community around them. And it’s the type of community that anyone can develop and nurture and just having it helps you in your quest to solve the big problems, invent the next big thing or right the great 21st century novel.
Gannett’s Creative Community consists of 4 parts:
1. A Master Teacher
2. Conflicting collaborators
3. A Modern Muse
4. A Prominent promoter
What isolation does is limit the number of inputs you are exposed to. This means that you are limited to how many things you can connect. It also means that this pool is never refreshed, so sooner or later you are literally going to run out of ideas.
Gannett’s community acts to counteract this problem in several ways. To have a master teacher can also be having a learning mindset: never stop reading, investigating and acquiring new information. People make much of the fact that Van Gogh was an untrained painter. But when he became an adult, he was expected to enter the Art dealing trade… he knew all the masters of what had gone before, and as a result, he was able to conceptualise a new place to go… once he learned the physical skills to accomplish that, off he went.
Never stop learning!
Conflicting collaborators are the opposite of hiring for cultural fit. The problem with cultural fit is that everyone comes from similar backgrounds, thinks in similar ways and inevitably will solve problems in similar ways. When you have someone you interact with, who challenges how you think and what you think about, it’s going to stretch you by introducing new perspectives, counter-narratives and unexpected information.
Simon Sinek’s ‘Start With Why’ proposition is related to the notion of a muse… if you know WHY you are doing something, it’s easier to get up after setbacks and carry on. You have an intrinsic motivation that is not result-dependent that keeps you going.
And lastly, everyone can do with an outsider who tells the rest of the world about the value of what you are doing… I have no idea how to acquire such a person, but I am in the market for one! Someone else telling people how interesting what you are doing is is always more believable than you telling it… Which encapsulates the issues with social media: Sure, you say you’re good, but why should I believe you? Someone else telling me that is very different in impact.
So, when you’re focusing on becoming more innovative, more inventive or creative, as a company or an individual, don’t think about individuals in isolation. Think about the ecosystem. Think about who and what else is required for a person r a team to be creative.
Above all, avoid requiring that tortured souls spend time in towers.
It doesn’t work reliably.