The Gestalt's Garden

Internalise the myth of the collaborative genius

| 5 min (1104 words)
#creativity #myth-collaborative-genius #personal-growth

Am I reinventing the wheel?

One of the most important lessons I learned in my PhD was: «don’t reinvent the wheel». It may seem trivial; just do research that hasn’t been done before. But, the reality is more complex.

To create something new, you need to know what things exist in the world. But this is not enough. You also need to know what things will add value if you create them.

However, these doubts are only the symptoms.

These doubts may be because you don’t understand how creativity works. Or worse, you have a mental model that “explains” creativity but is unrealistic (or even toxic).

In this post, I explain a realistic (and healthy) mental model of creativity that will help you to:

The myth of the solitary genius

How does creativity work?

There are many ways to explain how a person is able to create a unique and valuable work. The most widespread way to explain creativity is the myth of the solitary genius1:

  1. An individual with superhuman abilities.
  2. Appears out of nowhere, free from influence or precedent.
  3. Has a sudden moment of inspiration.
  4. He devotes his whole life to his work.
  5. Creates a masterpiece of world-renowned success.

This is the myth of great scientists and artists. For example, Thomas Edison.

Thomas Edison invented the light bulb

Suppose you ask a random person about Thomas Edison. That person will most likely have the following story in mind: “Thomas Edison was a great inventor who, through his genius and hard work, managed to make a revolutionary breakthrough for his time: he invented the light bulb.”

In other words, Thomas Edison invented the light bulb because he was a solitary genius.

The myth of the solitary genius is toxic

If we believe in the myth of the solitary genius, we will understand creativity as an anti-social act that is only available to privileged minds: solitary geniuses.

The problem?

This understanding of creativity leaves us out. I don’t have a privileged mind, so I can never be a solitary genius and, therefore, cannot do creative work.

However, there is a mental model that explains creativity in a healthier way and, in my opinion, explains much better the creative advances humanity has made: the myth of the collaborative genius.

The myth of the collaborative genius

The myth of the collaborative genius consists of the following:

  1. An individual with average abilities.
  2. Appears in a community that influences him with ideas.
  3. Finds a gap in the community’s knowledge.
  4. Uses his work and available ideas to fill that gap.
  5. His work is integrated back into the community.

This myth is… the exact opposite of the myth of the solitary genius!

The myth of the collaborative genius tells us that we don’t need to be a genius on our own: interacting, collaborating, and using the ideas of others is what makes us geniuses.

Great ideas come from collaboration.

Why do I say that the myth of collaborative genius better explains reality?

If we look around the world, breakthroughs often result from a collaboration of ideas: great ideas are not created in a vacuum; each new idea builds on a previous idea.

Let’s go back to Thomas Edison’s example.

Thomas Edison did NOT invent the light bulb; he improved it.

The real story about the invention of the light bulb differs from what we have seen before2.

Light bulbs already existed before Thomas Edison invented his own light bulb. However, these bulbs were delicate and short-lived because of the filaments they used. What Thomas Edison did was to «improve this light bulb design» until he achieved a light bulb that could be lit for 48 hours at a time.

This was Thomas Edison’s contribution:

  1. He found an unsolved problem in society.
  2. He used the available knowledge as a starting point.
  3. He focused his work on improving the available knowledge.

Thomas Edison was a collaborative genius.

Facilitate the collaboration of ideas

The basis of the collaborative genius is the «collaboration of ideas» that occurs when we:

But it is important to understand that this collaboration of ideas does not necessarily imply a «collaboration of individuals». In fact, when individuals compete to develop the best solution, their ideas collaborate.

For example, Thomas Edison had competitors who were very interested in his ideas to copy or even steal them. As a result of this competition, we now have light bulbs that last much longer and are more efficient than Edison’s bulb.

Conclusion: Internalise the myth of the collaborative genius

The myths of the solitary and collaborative genius are mental models that seek to explain creativity. But, more importantly, these mental models also modify our expectations of how creativity «should» work.

And why should you care about your expectations about creative work?

Healthy expectations make it easier for you to do creative work in a healthy way:

I clearly feel that internalizing the myth of the creative genius is one of the most important lessons in my life. If out of all the posts I’ve written, you could only keep one idea, let it be this one:

“Internalise the myth of the collaborative genius: stop reinventing the wheel and sit on the shoulders of giants to see further.”

And you, what are your expectations about creativity?

You can answer me in the comments or directly to this email. Either way, I’ll get back to you :-)


  1. The idea of the solitary genius myth is not mine, it’s Austin Kleon’s. Specifically, from his book “Show Your Work!: 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered”. However, his book “Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative” is also a great help to delve deeper into creativity. Both books are highly recommended :-) ↩︎

  2. This Wikipedia page shows the evolution of the idea of the light bulb until Thomas Edison created his own improved version: “Incandescent light bulb” ↩︎

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