art above by Emmanel Laflamme

As a child in school, in India, I hated groupthink.

Groupthink was then known as herd mentality, best embodied by Eugene Ionesco’s play, “Rhinoceros,” the story of a man who resists becoming one of the many lackeys of state power. At the very end, he can’t withstand the pressure and becomes another statistic in the Communist regime—a  groupthinking rhino.

Rhinoceros, performed by Naqshineh Theatre

In school, we were encouraged to think groupthoughts or thoughts that were very conventional, predictable even. If you came up with an idea or an expression that was unclassifiable or too unique to be processed, then it was perceived as a mark of arrogance by the class teacher. 

Back then, to not enter into the herd mentality was simply to be an old-fashioned individualist.

Today’s groupthink, as defined by Susan Cain in her op-ed in The New York Times “The Rise of the New Groupthink,” is what I’d call “groupthink 2.0” (as everything that’s “new” has to have the 2.0 suffix) and is different from groupthink 1.0.

The New Groupthink is not a residue of dreadful Communism, but ironically enough, it is structurally similar in being implicitly coercive. She defines “New Groupthink” as:

Solitude is out of fashion. Our companies, our schools and our culture are in thrall to an idea I call the New Groupthink, which holds that creativity and achievement come from an oddly gregarious place. Most of us now work in teams, in offices without walls, for managers who prize people skills above all. Lone geniuses are out. Collaboration is in. 

The word “collaboration” is beautiful in and of itself because it evokes a sense of community. But, Cain says that the New Groupthink projects collaboration as the only approach to creativity. It stigmatizes the notion of an older work culture where people toil away in the privacy of their own cubicles or rooms, implying that the old workstyle is arcane, elitist and unproductive.

Simply put, the New Groupthink coerces people to be productive only in the midst of a social setting.

Yet, as Cain argues, citing studies conducted by psychologists, blind adherence to collaboration can be detrimental to creativity and productivity, especially when the creators and producers are introverts who are enormously talented, like to share their ideas with a larger public, but are most comfortable when they are left alone to develop those ideas in the quiet of their private spaces.

Historically, the best innovators and thought-producers have been introverts. They are not unsocial or anti-social, but are social in that they love the company of fellow humans, and would prefer to remain unaccompanied when they are at work.

Susan Cain beside the cover of her book "Quiet"

In “Quiet: The Power of the Introvert,” Cain, among many things, upholds the example of Steve Wozniak as an unsung hero of our times. Wozniak developed Apple’s personal computer in the solitude of his basement, immersed in his work into the wee hours of the night. He is known to be a genial person who loves to share his thoughts with others, informally, over coffee and donuts. 

Wozniak wouldn’t have succeeded in a culture where collaboration has been formalized as an office policy.

Steve Wozniak (right) and Steve Jobs during the early days of Apple

I feel that today’s engineers, who work in collaborative spaces, are much like yesterday’s rhinoceroses. They have the skills but have stunted individualities and little depth of character or mind. They flourish in collaborative spaces because they really don’t have to come up with exceptional discoveries. They are just required to assemble shiny notions into coherent and saleable products.

Wozniak, on the other hand, was a man driven by a vision and a mission—to make the personal computer available to the general public at low cost and in an user-friendly form. He wasn’t motivated by bonuses, perks, or salaries. They came as an incidental part of his creation anyway.

Sadly, in the din of the celebrity status accorded to so-called “geniuses” like Steve Jobs, who was said to have been creative in a most gregarious way, the narrative of the “quiet” inventor like Steve Wozniak, has been lost.

Perhaps the new book by Susan Cain will bring the value of such inventors to light.