Which is More Creative, A Lone Wolf or a Team?

The “lone wolf” theory of creativity (usually an artist struggling alone) has always been the romantic ideal, but is it true? We look to artistic geniuses throughout history and naturally think that real creativity happens in isolation. But as more and more research and historical information comes to light, the lone wolf theory just isn’t holding up. As Peter Bart from Variety Magazine recently pointed out:

“Most creative breakthroughs, recent studies point out, are the products of teams of artists.”

For instance, we know that great painters throughout history often worked with teams. Elizabethan Theater – even Shakespeare – reflected the greater efforts of teams of writers and re-writers. Records from the era record payments to multiple writers for the same play. The history of Hollywood is the story of teams of writers, producers, and other creatives working as teams. If you look at musical theater, you see legends like Rogers and Hammerstein or Lerner and Loewe.

Steve Jobs had a co-founder, and although he had a powerful and compelling vision, he always surrounded himself with an incredibly talented team. In fact, it’s fascinating to track all the other innovations former Apple employees have launched.

The list goes on and on. Tiny Fey and Amy Poehler, Lennon and McCartney, Richard Zanuck and David Brown….

It’s also worth noting the idea that other people in the room being a motivator dates back to a breakthrough study in 1898 by Norman Triplett. An early leader in social psychology, Triplett discovered that cyclists raced faster when other cyclists were present. I can confirm that I workout much harder when I’m in an exercise class versus working out alone.

So what does it mean? Forget the romantic ideal.  If you’re blessed with uncommon genius and enjoy working alone, then by all means go for it. But as history and recent research points out, even the best ideas could benefit from having other opinions.  Iron sharpens iron.  Start looking for someone that has the right chemistry, is creative, and you have enormous respect. Personal friendship isn’t necessary, but respect is. Try it out and see what happens….

What’s been your experience? Are you a creative loner or do you benefit from interaction with other gifted and creative people?

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  1. The nature of my job does require some “lone wolf” planning (sermons in particular) but I find I think best when I am brainstorming with others. I love the give and take, the flow of ideas and the new ones which hit while going through this process.

  2. Phil, this is a great post to hold in tension with your earlier post on carving out space to work in strategic isolation–both dynamics are needed. I like working alone for sheer efficiency and productivity, but without the input of others, I can get far down a that road of productivity and not realized that I’ve missed a turn.
    The challenge for me is to marry these two, to create a culture where our team can be great at idea generation and execution.

  3. At this point I am a lone wolf. I don’t want to be, but try to find a team of writers were I live hasn’t been too fruitful. Unless I’m willing to tuck in with LDS writers. I may have to do that and have to a certain point learned a great deal from one Mormon writer. Having retired from being a technical writer, program manger and public affairs I’m disoriented in some ways when it comes to spec screenwriting.

    I have been consumed all my career with my jobs in national security and have only had time to take notes for a future date to write. I’ve pitched my ideas in and around Burbank and LA many times over the years and have always receive positive feedback. Now is my time to do. “There is no try, only do.”

    I have had many troubling times in my life that our Lord has always taken me through resulting in and giving me the passion to want to help and comfort. One example, and is one of the screenplays I want to develop, is the time I was the only white guy in 18 blocks in Tampa, Florida. I was taken in by a wonderful Afro-American family that helped me pick-up the pieces of my life when I was thrown out of my house, and high school.

    As I said I don’t want to be a lone wolf, because I have been part of a few teams that have had a greater impact as a team than what I was ever able to do. An example of that is, when a team I was chosen to be on, took a four day process and reduced it down to six hours without affecting flight and nuclear safety.

    I am trusting the right mentor will come along, help me dust off, again, point me in an obvious direction, and get me going. (I’m open to a boot in the …well, you know.) I make a huge effort to be teachable. I have no doubt I will complete the screenplays in my head. I will continue to press as the lone wolf until I find the right team or I’m pointed in a different direction.

    I’m going to be in Disneyland for fun very soon…maybe…A few prayers for me would be greatly appreciated.

    Thanks Phil, for your help finding my voice and helping me to improve my writing skills through your blog. And a hardy “Amen” to Aaron Johnson’s post.

  4. Much of my experience has been working with creative teams. I find working with a team is not only enjoyable, but more productive, and the end result was always better than if I did it alone. I think that if you want to do something big, you have involve other people. There are some creative projects that work better by doing them alone or at least in part- such as writing.

    Working with a creative team that has a lone ranger/wolf involved is another story altogether….

  5. Most creativity that feels like 100% “passion” is usually backed by a STRONGLY DEVELOPED craft/skill/science that allows the passion to flow unhindered.

    Lone Wolfs hands-down put themselves on the slow-track to learning the “craft” or “science” in their creative vertical. Going alone, you can be in an industry for decades and not even be aware of the skills, tools, strategies, & knowledge that exist that will elevate you to a world-class level.

    1. That’s a great point Will. When people accomplish great things, they often feel “passionate” about it, but they also executed the project based on a considerable amount of skill…

  6. This is an interesting topic for me. I am a film maker who writes his own scripts and I’ve produced and directed quite a number of short films over the last three years.

    First, film is obviously a collaborative art. Bringing the talents of a group of people together often results in a better product then the ‘ature’ who is out there by him/herself going it alone.

    But not always.

    Where creative teams fail, in my opinion is when they are teams of equals. I don’t mean equal talents, I mean where they have an equal voice in the outcome. Films have a director. TV shows have a show runner. And even when Shakespeare employed a team of writers I believe he ultimately decided what went in and what came out. (and we’ve been second guessing him and ‘cutting’ his work ever since. )

    So while a film director may have a Cinematographer that knows more about lighting then him and a dialogue coach that can get better performances from an actor then him, and an art director that has a better eye for color and period detail then him, the bottom line is that these creatives cannot be left alone to exercise their craft or the end result will be closer to chaos then art.

    Creative teams can only work if there is a strong and talented leader that can filter the inputs of other creatives and mold a finished product that is actually better then the sum of it’s inputs.

    In the TV “writing rooms” of Hollywood this is also the case. Though the team gives input on every page of every script there is a writer assigned that filters that input and makes the decision of what goes in and what stays out. Next week it will be a different member of the team making the decisions for the next script, but there is an authority.

    But to many creative teams lack this leadership and seem to work on the principal of ‘we need to include everybody’ so it comes down to a vote or an ‘equal share of input’ or some other way of filtering that is often worse then a random coin flip for each idea would have been.

    Being in a corporate culture that values the equality of the creative process over the quality of the artistic outcome is overwhelmingly dysfunctional and often the reason creatives leave to ‘lone wolf” it. Because even their limited abilities result in better products then the democratic team’s best efforts.

    Now, all that said, that strong leader is often portrayed as the lone wolf or the ‘ature’ which ignores the importance of the teams contribution. but it is an equal crime to ignore the importance of the leader as principal creator of a teams work. Take the same team with a weak leader or worse one with bad judgement and you will get a drastically different outcome.

    all this IMO of course.


    1. Makes perfect sense Mark. In military terms your thought might be: “A team can take the hill, but it takes a leader to know which hill to take.”
      Thanks for posting!

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