In an age of team-building, we all need more solitude

It is the time of the year when the great divide between the salaried and the self-employed is at its widest. For one group, there will be the usual pay-slip at the end of the month, while the other faces that painful moment of reckoning which is the tax deadline.

At these moments, it is not just the financial security of the employed which seems enviable to freelances, but the suspicion that they are having an altogether jollier time at work than those of us working away down at the end of Lonely Street: the chats around a table they call “meetings”, the desk-to-desk flirting, those rather suspect “team-building” weekends.

The good news is that, according to a new book, all this jolly collaboration is often unproductive. Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, soon to be published in America, argues that what she calls “the New Groupthink” is profoundly misconceived. Solitude produces the best results.

Collaboration may be more fun, providing the comfort of noise and company, and it is increasingly part of our education, work and culture, but it works against originality. Cain is making an obvious point, but one which seems to have been forgotten. “People are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption.”

The research supports her argument. In a survey of 600 computer programmers at 92 companies, it was found that, while people within the same firm performed to similar levels, there was a huge gap in effectiveness between one company and another. It was those which offered staff a degree of privacy which produced the best results.

Where did it come from, this new obsession with groups – or, to put it another way, this fear of individuality? Cain suggests that there is a practical reason in that the average space given to US employees, including desk, filing cabinets and so on, has fallen from 500 to 200 square feet in the past 40 years (the average here is 120).

A more convincing explanation is the unquestioned and wrong-headed assumption that, if one person can produce a good idea, several together can only achieve more. Our culture may be self-obsessed but, weirdly, it is also one in which the noise of crowds and groups drowns out the unconventional and individual.

The aversion to solitude is now so pervasive that it takes hold in the most unlikely places. One would think, for example, that writing would be an obviously self-reliant profession. Yet, thanks to creative writing courses, would-be authors are encouraged to believe that, if they meet other writers regularly, sharing their problems, reading out their latest chapter, they will not only learn more and feel less alone, but will actually write better.

Their paymasters in publishing play the collaboration game, too. Editors and managers who are team players are increasingly preferred to any awkwardly talented individual. The result has been a less adventurous, more corporate-minded industry.

Even the reader is less solitary now. There are reading groups to attend, online communities to join. It seems that a book cannot be truly enjoyed today unless it has been shared and discussed with others.

The idea that “brainstorming” (almost always a misnomer) will invariably, through a process of shared competition and stimulation, produce worthwhile work is simply a myth. Some tasks may be achieved better with a team but, more often than not, collaboration leads to a bland, safety-first middle way.

It is disastrous, and politically harmful, that schools are infecting children with Groupthink. Solitude is good. It may be harder work, require greater levels of self-discipline and generally be less fun, but it forces individual ideas and character to come through. No matter what the team-leaders might say, it is likely to be a lot more personally satisfying, too.

Hockney’s record of vanishing landscape

The East Yorkshire landscapes of David Hockney, now on show at the Royal Academy, are turning out to be one of the hot tickets of the season. Sold out until March, A Bigger Picture may well beat the RA’s record-beating Van Gogh exhibition of last year.

It is the sheer joy of the pictures which seems to have captivated visitors. “It lifts one’s spirits”, one has said. “We’re still smiling. Yorkshire is going to get a lot of tourists after this,” said another. A certain irony is at work here. The reason for the smiles and lifted hearts is partly the talent of David Hockney, but his subject has something to do with it, too.

The British landscape is one of our great glories. Normally that would be a statement of the obvious, but extraordinarily, in 2012, it needs to be re-stated with some force. A government which has consistently put alleged economic growth and business interests before the sort of countryside being celebrated at the Royal Academy is betraying future generations.

For them, Hockney’s landscapes may turn out to be simply historical curiosities.

Independent, 24 January 2012