Brainstorming doesn't work: The case for individual creativity

There's more to the idea of the solitary genius than you think, says author and design guru Stephen Bayley.

by Stephen Bayley
Last Updated: 21 Oct 2019

A delicious omelette is a consequence of a brutal act of destruction. In this case, breaking eggs. Your light lunch is perfect evidence of the old paradox that the need to create is not the opposite of the urge to destroy, but an expression of the same motivation.  

No fastidious aesthete should really be quoting Zuckerberg any more, but he caught the idea perfectly when he said "move fast and break things". And, of course, the things he broke included promises.

If there is such a thing as The Creative Type, she’s often got an idea that is either original, better or different. And it is an idea that will often be imposed in an unreasonable style, not excluding foot-stamping, yelling, larceny, dissimulation and threat.

But the progress of civilisation, if we still actually believe in such a thing, actually depends on these unreasonable creatives. Why? Because reasonable people accept things as they are, while only spittle-flecked headbangers seek remedies to the commonplace and familiar.

Moments of change

Heraclitus said that change is the only constant in human affairs. Lampedusa put it most beautifully in his great Sicilian novel, The Leopard : "If you want things to stay the same, they must change". Ask yourself if it is really true that everything we most admire was the result of moments of great change.

That moment when a French mason reckoned he could do better than the earth-bound lumpen Romanesque and designed the first lofty Gothic vault, an arch that pointed to heaven. That moment when a deaf Beethoven abandoned tunes and wrote his last quartets. That moment a Rothschild realised debt was an asset that could be traded ? That moment when Karl Benz tired of horses and invented the "gasoline buggy". Or what about that moment when Sony’s Akio Morita realised that there were, indeed, "commercial applications for the transistor" (something which its inventors at Western Electric had doubted)?

The mystery is: what exactly led to these decisive moments of change? Neither philosophers nor brain scientists can offer a plausible answer. Was it something unique in an individual’s private brain chemistry, or was it something more public? The availability of a new material or a new energy source, for instance. The latter is what Lenin’s first Commissar of Business, Nikolai Kondratieff, believed. And he got sent to the gulag.

The creative individual

The common factor in these examples is that our inspirational model of "creativity" – from Cubism to the transistor radio - depends on autonomous (and sometimes even spontaneous) acts by (often quixotic) individuals, rather than negotiated agreements by plodding committees or boards.  The mad professor might be a lazy cliché of popular culture, but no-one has ever spoken about a mad deputy chairman-of-the-board.

If there is any agreement at all about where creativity comes from, it is that single people working alone seem to achieve it more often than collectives or groups. Indeed, it is one of the great delusions of contemporary life that working in groups is productive.  

Take ‘brainstorming’, an invention of the Mad Men era on Madison Avenue. The concept of brainstorming was, paradoxically, an autonomous creative act by an individual called Alex Osborn, one of the founders of the BBDO ad agency. In his book Applied Imagination (1953), Osborn showed how groups of people, sometimes a mix of experts and novices, may perhaps generate new ideas. But more often group dynamics, subtle pressures and a reluctance to be truly outspoken usually combine to mean that brainstorming produces, at best, a light, irritating drizzle of complacent mediocrity.

Your genius, if you can find one, does not need encouragement to paint a masterpiece or write a symphony. In fact, the days of masterpieces are probably over. But it’s always necessary to encourage the creative spirit because it is humane, irreverent and usually very interesting. It’s the state of mind that Miles Davis possessed when he explained his music by wonderfully saying: "I don’t play what’s there, I play what’s not there".

And this is what I wanted to explain in How To Steal Fire (one reviewer described the book as "old-fashioned" - maybe, but I am a creative type and I can assure you that old-fashioned will be the next new thing).

Creativity is essentially an attitude, which says I can do different or better. Perhaps in this strange moment when the internet has traded in its promise and become an un-policed playground for monopolist monetisers, scammers, paedophiles, money-launderers, drug-dealers and government surveillance, it is time to recover respect for the private individual and his personal interests.

I really am no technophobe, but I’d much prefer to know how to make a perfect omelette than to understand digital encryption. AI is not going to help, but an Elizabeth David cookery book might. And when I have made the perfect omelette, AI could not judge its quality.

Stephen Bayley is author of How to Steal Fire: The Myths of Creativity Exposed, the Truths of Creativity Explained, with Roger Mavity

Image credit: Penguin

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