The myth of the lone genius is pervasive. It obscures the way that any interesting work actually gets done through collaboration and teamwork.
In 1997 Apple launched a new slogan: Think Different.
The television advertisement celebrated the so-called “crazy ones” and featured people like Albert Einstein, Amelia Earhart, Pablo Picasso and Mahatma Gandhi. The voice over is a powerful piece of marketing:1
Here’s to the crazy ones.
The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers.
The round pegs in the square holes.
The ones who see things differently.
They’re not fond of rules.
And they have no respect for the status quo.
You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them.
About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them.
Because they change things. They push the human race forward.
While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius.
Because the people who are crazy enough to think
they can change the world, are the ones who do.
In hindsight it may have marked the turning point for the company ahead of the launch of products which did change the world: the iMac, the iPod and the iPhone.
But it never really resonated with me. I didn’t see myself in any of those traits: I’m not a rebel. I’m not a troublemaker. I much prefer to understand the rules so I don’t break them. I am more likely to be described as a round peg in a round hole.
But that doesn’t mean I accept the status quo. I also wanted to change the world, at least a small part of it.
But changing the world is a team sport. This campaign put the spotlight on individuals, and in the process overlooked all the other people who contributed to their success.
There is an obscure German poem by Bertolt Brecht, called Fragen eines lesenden Arbeiters:2
Wer baute das siebentorige Theben? In den Büchern stehen die Namen von Königen. Haben die Könige die Felsbrocken herbeigeschlappt?
Or, in English:
Who built the seven towers of Thebes? The names of kings are mentioned in the books. Did those kings drag those boulders?
Later, it includes this line:
Cäsar schlug die Gallier. Hatte er nicht wenigstens einen Koch bei sich?
Caesar defeated the Gauls. Was there at least a cook with him?
I was originally introduced to this poem by my high school German teacher. Not, as you might expect, back when I was studying German, but many years later when I returned to school to speak to a group of senior students.
She said to me: “I know you have worked for some well known companies. But what did you actually do?”
I didn’t have a succinct answer. I started talking about the different roles I’d had: software engineer, product manager, investor, adviser, yada yada. She stopped me and said: “Oh, you cooked the meals”.
She was right.
I’m inspired by the quiet ones: The co-founders. The collaborators. The ones who see things as they are. They nearly always work behind the scenes, helping the crazy ones with their rough edges. Despite being overlooked, underestimated and ignored, they quietly get on and change things too. They can achieve a lot without necessarily needing to take all the credit for themselves.
Perhaps the best example is Bernie Taupin, the songwriter best known for his 50+ year collaboration with musician Elton John. He wrote the words for nearly all the hits that are typically associated with the much more flamboyant, higher profile singer.3
Or Charlie Munger, the business partner of Warren Buffett since 1978.4 Munger is a low profile billionaire, while Buffett is widely acknowledged as “the best investor in the world”. But Buffet himself is clear about the value of the partnership:5
He makes me better than I would otherwise be and I don’t want to disappoint him.
Or Ted Sorensen, the speechwriter for President John F. Kennedy, as well as one of his closest advisers.6 He wrote many of the famous lines Kennedy is remembered for, including “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country” from Kennedy’s inaugural address,7 and “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” from the speech where Kennedy announced the intention to land a man on the Moon before 1970.8
There are so many others: Eric Bina, the co-founder of Netscape you may never have heard of;9 Gene Kranz, the flight director for NASA throughout the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space programs;10 and Tenzing Norgay, who may have been the first person to the top of Mount Everest (we’ll never know for sure, because both people involved in that feat both realised it was a team sport).11
Those examples are all men. But actually there are many more woman who fit this description:
Susan Wojcicki, who was Google’s first marketing manager in 1999, the product manager behind AdWords (the core of the Google business model), and the CEO of YouTube from 2014 to 2023, after leading the acquisition in 2006. Her garage was also the company’s first “office”. Despite that, she remains much less well known than the founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page.12
Lise Meitner, an Austrian physicist, who together with Otto Hahn discovered that atomic nuclei could be split into smaller parts, leading to the development of nuclear energy.13 In 1944 Hahn was awarded the Nobel Prize for this discovery.14
Camille Claudel, a French sculptor and a student and collaborator of Auguste Rodin (one of the most celebrated sculptors of his time). Her work was often attributed to Rodin, and she struggled to gain recognition as an individual artist. At the Musée Rodin in Paris they now have a whole room dedicated to her work.15
The myth of the lone genius is pervasive. It obscures the way that any interesting work actually gets done through collaboration and teamwork. Those with the biggest personalities or who make the most noise get the most attention. But don’t let that confuse us about how we can each contribute or about how important it is to surround ourselves with people who can cover the areas where we’re not strong.16
Any business with a dominant solo founder is like an operating system that can only run one application at a time: they can sell to customers, or do support, or build product, or fix bugs, or hire, or fundraise … but only one at a time, and with horrendous context-switching costs.
So, sure, raise a glass to the crazy ones. But keep in mind the cooks and the boulder draggers.
Whereever you belong on that spectrum there are vital jobs to be done.