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How Collaboration Can Kill Creativity

It’s true, there is no “I” in team, but there are two “I’s” in creativity. After spending five years in the creative department of advertising agencies, I’m beginning to think we should focus more on the second one.

Like most of my millennial cohorts, I was taught from a young age that teamwork is a good thing. Group projects pervaded my grade school, high school, and even college education. I graduated ready to apply my seasoned people-skills to a real life job. And I did! I still do, every day.

But lately I’m beginning to question the value of all this “togetherness” as it relates to results. In my case, results equate to ideas—I’m an advertising copywriter tasked with thinking up the next irresistible ad campaign for whichever client I’m assigned.

Within the walls of an ad agency, collaboration and creativity are nearly synonymous. A hip company that rejects solitude is lauded for progressive thinking. Down with plaster walls! Let’s make them glass. Heck, let’s tear down the glass and have long, communal tables. Eighteen heads are better than one, right?

It wasn’t until two weeks ago, when I heard Bill Simmons interview Lena Dunham in a podcast, that I realized this thinking might actually be wrong.  

Simmons said to Dunham, the creator of Girls (which happens to be my new TV obsession): "It seems like the best work we’ve seen on TV in the last 12 years has always been [the work of] one person, maybe two people, partners. Why doesn’t the TV industry realize this and just turn it over to one voice like HBO did with your show?”

The thought struck a chord. Simmons was right; Mad Men, Girls, The Wire, West Wing— all the best writing can be traced to a single creator. It got me thinking not just about TV, but all creative industries.

In the tech sector, Apple takes the cake for innovation, and that was the brainchild of one Steve Jobs, who was famously stubborn and possessive of his creative approach. Sure, he had thousands of helpers—just like Aaron Sorkin and Lena Dunham have writers—but the vision was primarily his.

While I realize collaboration is an essential part of problem solving, does it work as well when you’re trying to create something from nothing?

Even recent psychological studies suggest the answer is probably no. In a New York Times op-ed that ran in January, Susan Cain referred to the trend of hyper-collaboration as The New Groupthink. “Culturally, we’re often so dazzled by charisma that we overlook the quiet part of the creative process,” she wrote. “Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption.”

Sometimes in creative industries, you’re granted that privacy in order to come up with an idea. But once the idea is conceived, it’s passed around like a hot potato, subject to everyone’s red pens. And that can be worse.

My last project at work started out hopeful. My partner and I sat in a quiet room and, after much thought, brought a solid idea to our creative director. But after 11 meetings and rounds of revisions from creatives, account managers, strategists, and clients, the original idea was chipped away to a point beyond recognition. What eventually went to market was an ad that was neither here nor there; it lacked the oomph, personality, and relatability that once made it pretty darn good.

In that podcast with Simmons, Dunham remarked, “The more personal something is, the more people can relate to it. And the more you water it down, the more it feels like nobody made it.” YES! I thought. This girl gets it.  “If everyone got that concept, we would see mediocrity disappear. Either you’d hate things or you’d love them, but they’d really be what they are.” I love you, Lena Dunham.

But if we’re being totally honest, it’s not just our employers and teachers to blame; it’s also us. We millennials don’t know how to be alone. I, for example, am having a hard time finishing this article because I’ve interrupted myself every three minutes to check Facebook. And Twitter. And text a friend. What can I say—it’s lonely inside my head with just my thoughts.

So what’s the solution? Do we force ourselves into solitary confinement to create something great against all odds? I don’t know. But I do think it’s time we re-examine the old saying, rearrange some letters, and find a place for “me” in “team.”

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