Solitary work genius in the age of tribes and crowd-sourcing

Is there a place for solitary work and achievement in this age of teams, collaboration, KM, social media, crowdsourcing, etc? Can one person still “change the world”, all by themselves?

I wondered about these questions recently as I read James Gleick’s biography of Isaac Newton. To say that Newton was a solitary genius would be to understate his lack of interest in working with, and sharing with, others.

While safely tucked away from the plague infecting England in 1665 – 1666, Newton developed the basics of calculus as well as the foundation of what would become his greatest work, The Principia : Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (which would not be published for many years afterwards).

Newton returned home. He built bookshelves and made a small study for himself. He opened the nearly blank thousand-page commonplace book he had inherited from his stepfather and named it his Waste Book. He began filling it with reading notes. These mutated seemlessly into original research. He set himself problems; considered them obsessively; calculated answers, and asked new questions. He pushed past the frontier of knowledge (though he did not know this). The plague year was his transfiguration. Solitary and almost incommunicado, he became the world’s paramount mathematician.

He also waited 30 years before publishing his “second great work” – Opticks. He designed, built, and used his revolutionary reflecting telescope for over two years before sharing it with anyone. Bottom line, he preferred to work alone and chose not to share the fruits of his labor.  At least not right away.

I’ve long believed that knowledge is an inherently personal thing. Only individuals can come up with great (as opposed to “good” or “acceptable”) insights and ideas, and individuals create and hold their own knowledge. Of course, these insights and ideas – this knowledge – are most often inspired or catalyzed by the ideas of others, and the value of the knowledge is essentially zero until it is shared with others.

Without Euclid and Descartes, Newton would not have been able to achieve what he did. And if his work had never been published, then his ideas would never have had the opportunity to change the world.

So learn from those around you, build on the knowledge that they share. Then share your newfound knowledge right back.

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