Friday, March 16, 2012

The One Who Rakes Alone

Susan Cain is my new TED-crush. Her talk on "The Power of Introverts" hit me very powerfully, and spoke to some worries I've had recently about the mania we've made of collaboration in school and in the workplace. Collaboration is touted as a "21st century skill." Kids who do not learn how to collaborate in school are told that they will fail in the modern workplace. And they probably will. In my current job, I've had many--far too many--moments where individual, solitary thought and creativity has been denigrated and dismissed--held suspect, somehow, as though anything not put through the meat-grinder of group brainstorming cannot possibly be good.

I have no problem working in teams, but I need to know that it is "I" who is part of the team--that I am contributing something of myself, from myself, and that this individual contribution is important. When leaders act as though the group has one mind, and that individuals should subsume themselves to that mind--that the group is always smarter than the individual--well...I find that kind of scary. That's not 21st century thinking; in fact, it's very dangerously 20th century thinking, as seen in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

As Susan Cain points out, the great works of art and insights of science have come from solitary thinkers. The great revelations of religion and philosophy have come from solitary thinkers. The world needs time enough and space enough and quiet enough for us to go off in the woods, sometimes, and dive deep down into our own minds, to wrestle with our ideas in solitude and follow a line of thought wherever it might lead.

Bruce Chatwin wrote memorably about the power of walking, in aiding thought and creativity, in The Songlines. You could certainly walk and work with a partner, but most often, it's a solitary thing--you, setting off into the world, getting lost in the woods while lost in thought.

I am, at heart, an introvert, so I suppose it's just a bias of mine, but I truly believe that a group of people sitting around a table, yapping at each other incessantly and jockeying to be heard, can only (or if not only, then often) result in thinking that is superficial, that is brightly colored and clearly delineated--easy to see and appreciate--but that is not terribly profound or original. That's my bias, and I'm sticking with it.

Which is not to say that collaboration is bad. Bringing together a group of people who have had time to think and ponder alone, and letting them bounce ideas off each other, is definitely of use. Sending them away from the table again and letting them continue their work alone--that also has value. When I worked in a theatre company, I did my play writing alone, but then I brought my work to the group, and the collaboration within the group definitely improved my original contribution. I loved that collaboration. But I would have hated having to create the play in the harsh light of the group. In today's way of thinking, that seems to seen increasingly as hanging on to outmoded models of authorship and ownership: selfish; greedy. But I don't see it that way.

Life should be an ebb and flow--never one thing, incessantly. But we love to pounce on the Next Big Thing and work it to death, to the exclusion of all else. And nothing really works that way. There is a place for collaboration, and there is a place for quiet, individual thought.

Again--I'm basically an introvert, so of course I'm going to feel this way. When Susan Cain recites the "camp spirit" cheer she was forced to participate in as a child ("R-O-W-D-I-E!), I cringe. I remember moments like that, and I hated all of them. I never had camp spirit, or school spirit, and I hated chanting with a crowd. Like Cain, I've had too many moments where I've put my suitcase of books under a chair and gone out to big, loud parties. More often than not, I've stood with my back against some wall, feeling more isolated and alone than I would have felt in the solitude of my room. A loud, raucous table at a bar, somewhere, with a small group of friends? Love it. A loud, raucous dance club filled with strangers? My season in hell.

These things are with us from birth. Either we acknowledge them and honor them, or we spend our lives fighting them, feeling like the world is right and we are wrong. When I was 10 or 11, I had to help rake our yard. We lived in suburban New York, and the fall was filled with dead leaves--more and more every week. We had shrubs planted along every wall of the house, so raking involved not only the front and back lawns, but also required scrabbling through the underbrush to get at the leaves trapped there. Every weekend. And I noticed something pretty quickly. When my dad and my brother were outside with me, raking was a chore. But somehow, on the weekends that I had to do it all by myself, it wasn't. Somehow, being alone with the job--knowing it was mine to do and mine to own--that mattered to me, and made it something worth doing. Someone else could easily have felt the opposite--lonely and bored when working alone; happier when the family was pitching in. We're all wired differently.

Internet and Web 2.0 technology and tools have made collaboration across time and distance easy, affordable, and fun. I have no problem with it, and, in fact, I make use of it constantly. But we are not the Borg, and we are not ants in a colony. We are not undifferentiated neurons in a vast brain that is Humanity. We are human beings. Maybe it is an old fashioned view of things, and maybe I am old and outdated. But I do believe in the mystery and the sanctity of the individual human mind. I believe that each mind is a world unto itself, and holds within it a unique gift (or curse) for the world.

The world already has more R-O-W-D-I-E than it needs.  God bless the girl with the suitcase of books.

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