Coraline Ada Ehmke

The Myth of the Lone Genius

Coraline Ada Ehmke | April 8, 2019

For many years, “hard skills”-- the overwhelming focus on gaining technical expertise-- have been in high demand, and have been valued as one of the most important attributes of success in our field, in contrast with “soft skills”, which deal with communication and interpersonal relationships.

But we as an industry are slowly learning that success actually requires a combination of these skill sets. While we frame early pioneers in our field as lone geniuses who applied their technical prowess to invent new technologies and ways of solving challenging problems, the reality is that these people never really worked alone. At the very least they had extensive support networks in place, and in many cases there were a number of other people without whom these “lone geniuses” would not have been successful at all.

The notion of the lone genius arguably has its origins in the 18th century, during the period that historians have dubbed The Enlightenment. In previous centuries it was widely acknowledged that invention was a collaborative process that relied on the work of networks of people both contemporary and historical. But when Britain enacted the first copyright law in 1710, it gave credence to the idea of inventors as originators and owners of ideas.

Harvard’s scholar Marjorie Garber wrote in her 1987 book “Shakespeare’s Ghost Writers” that it was during the Romantic Era that the “cult of the genius” emerged. Shakespeare is a prime example of the type: despite evidence that he borrowed heavily from other poets and playwrights, and collaborated extensively, he is held up as an example of natural genius.

One of the most lauded inventors of the 19th century, Thomas Alva Edison, is another example of how the myth of the heroic and solitary genius came to be so popular. Edison got his start making improvements in telegraphy and was awarded several minor patents. He sold these patents and invested the money he made in the construction of a facility in Menlo Park, new Jersey that came to be known as the “Invention Factory”. Edison staffed the Factory with a large team of engineers, machinists, and physicists, who called themselves the “muckers”. The muckers were responsible for generating hundreds of patents over a period of six years.

The muckers did not enjoy wide commercial success for their inventions at first. They quickly discovered that when they tried to sell their ideas, their audience responded better to the idea of a single individual being responsible for the invention. The rising celebrity of Edison’s name became too valuable to ignore, and they began to publicly attribute their collective work to his genius. Francis Jehl, Edison’s long-time assistant, even wrote that “Edison” was in reality a collective noun.

In his book “The Powers of Two”, author and essayist Joshua Wolf Shenk responds to the myth of the lone genius by exploring the role of partnership and collaboration. Success through partnership extends beyond widely recognized duos like the Wright Brothers or the Curies. In his book Shenk explores the relationships between people like Picasso and Matisse, Vincent Van Gogh and his brother Theo, Albert Einstein and Michele Besso, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy. In some cases these relationships were collaborative, and in others they were adversarial, but they always had an undeniable, and in fact critical, interpersonal component.

The conclusion that Shenk comes to is that working relationships, although not widely publicized, are the fundamental engine of the creative process.

Regardless of whether innovation comes from a lone, lionized inventor, a pair of collaborators or competitors, or a team of dedicated and talented professionals, it’s not really the novelty or cleverness of an invention that leads to success. Inventions only become successful when their utility is socialized, and socializing innovation requires effective communication skills and forming strong emotional connections with people.

A paper called “Human Cumulative Culture”, published by researchers in cognitive evolution, biology, and culture at the University of St Andrews and Durham University, explores the “unambiguously cumulative” character of complex human advancements. The paper describes how the transmission of knowledge gives rise to traits more complex than lone individuals could ever develop on their own, leading to a “ratcheting” effect on our technological complexity and capabilities. The authors argue that understanding the significant progress of human endeavors is only possible by examining the social processes that they rely on.

A broad range of altruistic and reciprocal social processes fall into a category that psychologists and sociologists call “pro-social behavior”. Pro-social behaviors are defined as voluntary actions that are intended to benefit other individuals or society as a whole. Examples of pro-social behavior include demonstrating altruism, obeying rules, acting on our values, and practicing empathy.

Research suggests that women and men practice pro-social behaviors differently-- starting at adolescence. Women tend act in ways that are communal, while men seem attracted to one-on-one interactions. The fact that this difference doesn’t manifest in young children suggests that it may be the result of gender-specific social conditioning.

Pro-social behaviors lead to better outcomes by helping us meet the innate human need to make connections to purposes larger than our own well-being. The connection of our work to a greater purpose can provide us with the motivation that we need to move past the excitement of a new idea and keep us motivated while we perform the “boring” activities that make it successful.

And in fact it is often these “boring” activities that make all the difference.

As developers we tend to feel best about our work when we’re writing new code. With the exception of devotees of test-driven development, we may be less enthusiastic about writing comprehensive tests to prove that our brilliant code actually works. And as evidenced by the hundreds of thousands of boilerplate READMEs on Github, many developers have a great aversion to documentation.

We celebrate the innovation of individual developers with the same zeal that we celebrate lone geniuses. But in fact, successful software requires collaboration-- with stakeholders, fellow coders, designers, technical writers, managers, and end users.

Especially in the open source world, where developers are often motivated by their own needs, projects don’t often gain success without the assistance of other people, either collaborating in the codebase itself or writing documentation, giving talks, or even writing books on the tool or framework.

It's high time that we recognized that progress is a social process, and that social process requires putting just as much emphasis on technical skills as interpersonal skills.