Idea of the Day #18
The Lone Inventor
Thoughts on the myth of the lone wolf in innovation
Within the first few pages of Walter Isaacson’s The Innovators, the author challenges one of the central myths of Silicon Valley and thus America: the lone wolf. Focusing specifically on the Internet era, Isaacson says:
The computer and the Internet are among the most important inventions of our era, but few people know who created them. They were not conjured up in a garret or garage by solo inventors suitable to be singled out on magazine covers or put into a pantheon with Edison, Bell, and Morse. Instead, most of the innovations of the digital age were done collaboratively. — Isaacson, Walter. The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution (p. 1). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
Contrary to the elaborate origin stories we have created for the founders of the internet (a la Jobs & Gates), the story of the internet is one of collaboration. When reading books like, Remote, I saw the importance of teamwork clearly in distributed teams. The fact of the matter is, you simply cannot make magnificent products alone.
Yet we focus time and time again on the lone wolf in tech. We fawn over Mark Zuckerburg and his heroic efforts in bringing Facebook to life and mythologize Steve Jobs who himself had only meager tech skills. In Isaacson’s book, he aims to take a look at how collaboration has produced some of our most noteworthy inventions.
In essence, he’s telling the story of teamwork.
The tale of their teamwork is important because we don’t often focus on how central that skill is to innovation. There are thousands of books celebrating people we biographers portray, or mythologize, as lone inventors. I’ve produced a few myself. Search the phrase “the man who invented” on Amazon and you get 1,860 book results. But we have far fewer tales of collaborative creativity, which is actually more important in understanding how today’s technology revolution was fashioned. It can also be more interesting. — Isaacson, Walter. The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution (p. 1). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.