Terence Blacker: In the age of team-building, we all need solitude more than ever

The Way We Live: Our culture may be self-obsessed but, weirdly, it is also one in which the noise of crowds and groups drowns out the unconventional and individual

Related Topics

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.

At these moments, it is not just the financial security of the employed which seems enviable to freelances, but the suspicion that they are having an altogether jollier time at work than those of us working away down at the end of Lonely Street: the chats around a table they call "meetings", the desk-to-desk flirting, those rather suspect "team-building" weekends.

The good news is that, according to a new book, all this jolly collaboration is often unproductive. Susan Cain's Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, soon to be published in America, 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."

The research supports her argument. In a survey of 600 computer programmers at 92 companies, it was found that, while people within the same firm performed to similar levels, there was a huge gap in effectiveness between one company and another. It was those which offered staff a degree of privacy which produced the best results.

Where did it come from, this new obsession with groups – or, to put it another way, this fear of individuality? Cain suggests that there is a practical reason in that the average space given to US employees, including desk, filing cabinets and so on, has fallen from 500 to 200 square feet in the past 40 years (the average here is 120).

A more convincing 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 and groups drowns out the unconventional and individual.

The aversion to solitude is now so pervasive that it takes hold in the most unlikely places. 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.

Their paymasters in publishing play the collaboration game, too. Editors and managers who are team players are increasingly preferred to any awkwardly talented individual. The result has been a less adventurous, more corporate-minded industry.

Even the reader is less solitary now. There are reading groups to attend, online communities to join. It seems that a book cannot be truly enjoyed today unless it has been shared and discussed with others.

The idea that "brainstorming" (almost always a misnomer) will invariably, through a process of shared competition and stimulation, produce worthwhile work is simply a myth. Some tasks may be achieved better with a team but, more often than not, collaboration leads to a bland, safety-first middle way.

It is disastrous, and politically harmful, that schools are infecting children with Groupthink. Solitude is good. It may be harder work, require greater levels of 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.

Hockney's record of vanishing landscape

The East Yorkshire landscapes of David Hockney, now on show at the Royal Academy, are turning out to be one of the hot tickets of the season. Sold out until March, A Bigger Picture may well beat the RA's record-beating Van Gogh exhibition of last year.

It is the sheer joy of the pictures which seems to have captivated visitors. "It lifts one's spirits", one has said. "We're still smiling. Yorkshire is going to get a lot of tourists after this," said another. A certain irony is at work here. The reason for the smiles and lifted hearts is partly the talent of David Hockney, but his subject has something to do with it, too.

The British landscape is one of our great glories. Normally that would be a statement of the obvious, but extraordinarily, in 2012, it needs to be re-stated with some force. A government which has consistently put alleged economic growth and business interests before the sort of countryside being celebrated at the Royal Academy is betraying future generations.

For them, Hockney's landscapes may turn out to be simply historical curiosities.


React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

Ashdown Group: Database Analyst - Birmingham - £22,000 plus benefits

£20000 - £22000 per annum + excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

SThree: Recruitment Resourcer

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Uncapped Commission: SThree: Do you want to get in...

Ashdown Group: Project Manager - Birmingham - up to £40,000 - 12 month FTC

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Manager - Birmingham - ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Ed Miliband addresses an audience in the Brooks Building of Manchester Metropolitan University on April 21, 2015  

If socialism means building homes and getting the rich to pay their taxes, then bring on Red Ed

Kiran Moodley

Prevention is better than cure if we want to save the NHS

Tanni Grey Thompson
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before