Daniel Lemire's blog

, 15 min read

To be creative, work alone

In his excellent book How to Fly a Horse, Ashton makes a case for working alone. He quotes Apple’s co-founder and technical genius Steven Wozniak:

Work alone. You’re going to be best able to design revolutionary products and features if you’re working on your own. Not on a committee. Not on a team.

This should be qualified: Wozniak did not work alone. What he means is that he designed his work alone.

Researchers such as Brooks have long advocated that design is a lonely task.

The idea that building up ideas is best done alone or in tiny teams flies in the face of many of our managerial practices:

  • companies like Google and Facebook leave little private space to their employees;
  • most research funding bodies specifically encourage collaboration… having entire funding programs to encourage collaboration.

Yet we know that researchers in smaller laboratories are more productive (Carayol and Matt, 2006). There is also no evidence that collaboration with outside groups improves productivity (Abramo et al., 2009).

I believe that despite all of the evidence, our intuition about when good and innovative work happens is all wrong. If you cannot go for one hour in a quiet room to think, you are just responding. Your brain is not deeply engaged.

Yet we think too often that it is in this multitasking mode, where we have many things on our minds, solving twelve problems at a time, that we are being creative.

Time alone to think is often viewed as egotistical. I would argue that it is even slightly shameful. Who are you to request time alone in a private office?

I think we have evolved a negative view of loneliness for good reasons. For our ancestors, being alone was being dead.

Our brains are marvellous computers that have evolved for sophisticated relationships. We have complex interactions with a few people every day. Our livelihood depends on these interactions. I think you would be right to model human beings as nodes in a computing cluster. We are fundamentally geared to relate frequently and deeply with our tribe.

For sure, there are a few people who cut off all lines of communication… but far fewer than you may think. Look at tenured professors… look at how many, at least in the sciences, write their papers alone. Further, look at how many write papers alone on work that has little to do with what other contemporary researchers do… Researchers are amazing gregarious.

Most of my own work was done in small teams. I almost never work alone per se. I find it much more enjoyable to work with others. But my collaboration patterns are usually iterative:

  • Joe provides piece A;
  • I take time alone to study A, and after a time I provide B;
  • Joe takes B and valides it… maybe providing me with a revised version C…

Each iteration can take hours, days… But notice how the core of the work, the important pieces, are done by individuals working alone.

I have grown convinced over time that the reason we need to design alone is that it is difficult otherwise to reach a state of flow. In a good day, I might enter a state of flow for an hour or two. That is when I do my most important work. The rest of the day is spent answering emails, grading papers, reviewing articles, getting back to students, and so on.

To enter the state of flow, I need to ignore everything but the problem at hand. In a robust state of flow, I will forget to eat. It is difficult to enter this state with people around unless they are careful not to disturb you.

I like to compare a state of flow to a compute that shuts down all non-essential background processes. The entire CPU cache (i.e., your short term memory) becomes dedicated to one problem and one problem only.

In a normal state, my brain has to think about many things… though I am not aware of it, I constantly check the time, review my agenda for the day, and so on. In a state of flow, all these background tasks are terminated.

To do your best work, you need to focus. To get this result, you cannot be, at the same time, in constant interaction with others. So, effectively, you have to be alone… at least when you are doing your important work.