Terence Blacker: Solitude is the school of genius

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The Independent Online

It is the time of the year when the great divide between the salaried and the self-employed is at its widest. For one group, there will be the usual pay-slip at the end of the month, while the other faces that painful moment of reckoning which is the tax deadline. And it is not just the employed's financial security which seems enviable, but the suspicion that they have a jollier time than we freelancers down at the end of Lonely Street: the chats they call "meetings", desk-to-desk flirting, those "team-building" weekends.

The good news is that, according to a new book, all this collaboration is often unproductive. Susan Cain's Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking argues that what she calls "the New Groupthink" is profoundly misconceived. Solitude produces the best results. Collaboration may be more fun, providing the comfort of noise and company, and it is increasingly part of our education, work and culture, but it works against originality.

Cain is making an obvious point, but one which seems to have been forgotten: "People are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption."

Research supports her. In a survey of 600 computer programmers at 92 companies, it was found that, while those within the same firm performed similarly, there was a huge gap in effectiveness between companies. Those offering staff a degree of privacy produced the best results.

Where did it come from, the obsession with groups? One explanation is the unquestioned and wrong-headed assumption that, if one person can produce a good idea, several together can only achieve more. Our culture may be self-obsessed but, weirdly, it is also one in which the noise of crowds drowns out the unconventional and individual.

The aversion to solitude is now pervasive. One would think, for example, that writing would be an obviously self-reliant profession. Yet, thanks to creative writing courses, would-be authors are encouraged to believe that, if they meet other writers regularly, sharing their problems, reading out their latest chapter, they will not only learn more and feel less alone, but will actually write better.

It is disastrous, and politically harmful, that schools are infecting children with Groupthink. Solitude is good. It may be harder work, requiring more self-discipline and generally be less fun, but it forces individual ideas and character to come through. No matter what the team-leaders might say, it is likely to be a lot more personally satisfying, too.