Saturday, January 21, 2012

Solitude is out of fashion, but maybe it's finally becoming fashionable to say so

Finally, a prominent NY Times piece that breaks the Group Think mold: Susan Cain's opinion piece in this past weekend NYTimes' Week in Review on... Group Think.*

Solitude is out of fashion. Our companies, our schools and our culture are in thrall to an idea I call the New Groupthink, which holds that creativity and achievement come from an oddly gregarious place. Most of us now work in teams, in offices without walls, for managers who prize people skills above all. Lone geniuses are out. Collaboration is in.
We see this, in particular, in society's reaction to Jobs' death (which I blogged about earlier):
In the wake of Steve Jobs’s death, we’ve seen a profusion of myths about the company’s success. Most focus on Mr. Jobs’s supernatural magnetism and tend to ignore the other crucial figure in Apple’s creation: a kindly, introverted engineering wizard, Steve Wozniak, who toiled alone on a beloved invention, the personal computer.
Although I remain skeptical that most of us spend most of our working hours interacting constantly in group offices, Cain writes:
Virtually all American workers now spend time on teams and some 70 percent inhabit open-plan offices, in which no one has “a room of one’s own.”
Her impression of elementary school classrooms, on the other hand, is something I and others have blogged about repeatedly--though try telling this to the many NYTimes (and other) reporters who think it's headline news whenever they see this:
Today, elementary school classrooms are commonly arranged in pods of desks, the better to foster group learning. Even subjects like math and creative writing are often taught as committee projects.
Acknowledging that:
Some teamwork is fine and offers a fun, stimulating, useful way to exchange ideas, manage information and build trust.
Cain draws the same distinction that I do between divvying-it-up collaboration and interacting-constantly cooperation:
But it’s one thing to associate with a group in which each member works autonomously on his piece of the puzzle; it’s another to be corralled into endless meetings or conference calls conducted in offices that afford no respite from the noise and gaze of co-workers.

Recent studies suggest that influential academic work is increasingly conducted by teams rather than by individuals. (Although teams whose members collaborate remotely, from separate universities, appear to be the most influential of all.)
Cain cites several studies showing the various downsides to cooperation (vs. collaboration). First, there's creativity:
Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption. And the most spectacularly creative people in many fields are often introverted.
Then there's physical and emotional health:
Studies show that open-plan offices make workers hostile, insecure and distracted. They’re also more likely to suffer from high blood pressure, stress, the flu and exhaustion.
Then there's productivity and quality of work:
People whose work is interrupted make 50 percent more mistakes and take twice as long to finish it.
Cain cites the Coding War Games, a study that compared the work of more than 600 computer programmers at 92 companies:
What distinguished programmers at the top-performing companies wasn’t greater experience or better pay. It was how much privacy, personal workspace and freedom from interruption they enjoyed. Sixty-two percent of the best performers said their workspace was sufficiently private compared with only 19 percent of the worst performers. Seventy-six percent of the worst programmers but only 38 percent of the best said that they were often interrupted needlessly.
Even one of the few elements of cooperative interactions I had thought was beneficial, it seems, isn't so:
Brainstorming sessions are one of the worst possible ways to stimulate creativity.. People in groups tend to sit back and let others do the work; they instinctively mimic others’ opinions and lose sight of their own; and, often succumb to peer pressure. The Emory University neuroscientist Gregory Berns found that when we take a stance different from the group’s, we activate the amygdala, a small organ in the brain associated with the fear of rejection. Professor Berns calls this “the pain of independence.”
Indeed, one has only to recall the Solomon Asch experiments to see how true that is.

Cain's recommendations?
Our offices should encourage casual, cafe-style interactions, but allow people to disappear into personalized, private spaces when they want to be alone. Our schools should teach children to work with others, but also to work on their own for sustained periods of time. And we must recognize that introverts like Steve Wozniak need extra quiet and privacy to do their best work.
This sounds reasonable, thought it's never been clear to me how qualified teachers (as opposed to psychologists and social workers) are to teach children how to work with others. To most children cooperation comes naturally, though some of them may need reminders and incentives. Less social children may need social skills groups run by trained therapists. Teachers should certainly encourage children to be kind and helpful, but I woiuldn't call that "teaching children to work with others."

More powerful than Cain's recommendations are the recommendations she cites from Apple's other Steve:
“Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me ... they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone .... I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone... Not on a committee. Not on a team.”
*It's worth noting, however, that three of the four responses published a few days later in the Times Letters were negative.


Nancy Bea Miller said...

Great article, thanks for posting the highlights! I completely agree with "Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption."

I'm in an MFA program right now and have a very hard time working in the school studio provided for's not a cubicle, I have walls and a door, but the walls are low and the ceiling is high, hence frequent noisy conversations through the six foot gap etc will intrude, as well as gregarious fellow students dropping by to chat when they see (from the lights visible over the low walls) that you're in. I actually enjoy the energy and camaraderie in small doses, but am just finding it hard to get any real work done there. Now I know why!

Anonymous said...

How much harder it is to hold on to your own vision when that vision is mediated by autistic neuroprocessing and you are seen be peers as a person pathologically out of step.

Anonymous said...

Isn't some of the group work that seems to happen because of cubical-land going to go away when people really get going on telecommuting. I think the 'group work' in schools is vastly overrated and would rather my children learn...what they need to cooperate they learn anyway.

SymbolicSoliloquy said...

I struggled going to school as a kid, I liked other people, but I wanted to be alone. I really came into this world curious about it, and that has never left me at 28. I'm in college at a community college and working as a programmer. I think what made me really realize how important alone time is when learning is when I went back to Geometry. I realized that I was never taught Euclid! It is so beautiful! In fact, I don't think in school we ever went over a single proof in Mathematics.