Turing: The Myth of the Heroic Soloist

02/09/2015 09:02 am ET | Updated Apr 11, 2015

If you believe what you see in the film The Imitation Game, Alan Turing singlehandedly broke the code on Nazi Germany's Enigma machine against the active or passive opposition of numerous dull, obstructive bureaucrats. A loner from the start, only Turing had the intellect and imagination that lesser mortals couldn't appreciate.

It's a common and tedious myth: that the talented one (usually a man) takes on a monumental challenge, is isolated by his genius but nevertheless changes the world. And, just as in The Imitation Game, it's pernicious and wrong.

As Christian Caryl points out with polite rage in the New York Review of Books, the film's portrayal of Turing is riddled with clichés but, more importantly, it patronizes Turing by over-simplifying him. Turing wasn't an isolate -- he had plenty of friends and a "sprightly sense of humour." He didn't work alone but amidst a highly intelligent and knowledgeable team who did a very great deal more than stand by in silent awe. Bletchley Park wasn't an abject, amateur failure until Turing came along -- it was productive from the very start of the war. It wasn't Turing alone but a team of cryptologists who together appealed to Churchill for more resources. And by the end of the war, Bletchley wasn't successful because of one genius and a bunch of mechanics -- but because of the collaborative commitment of 9,000 people. Yes Turing was brilliant -- but his success was not alone but as a dazzling member of a great team.

That isn't the romance we want nowadays. Like a doomed and depressing marriage, we remain wedded to the perverse and dispiriting myth that great achievements come from solitary and unique geniuses, not from highly collaborative, effective teams. I fully appreciate that the narrative of the heroic soloists is easier to write and dramatize; it just isn't true. Great achievements invariably require the collaboration of other smart, engaged, vibrant minds. To suggest otherwise flies in the face of fact and justice.

After Turing, the current poster child for heroic soloists is Steve Jobs. According to pervasive hagiography, Jobs alone founded Apple, led Pixar and resurrected Apple on his return. The truth is far more interesting. Jobs always did his best work with great collaborators: sturdy intellects prepared to argue and debate until better ideas and solutions emerged. Founding Apple, he had Steve Wozniak, buying Pixar he inherited Ed Catmull and John Lasseter, returning to Apple he found Jonathan Ive. Only when left to his own devices -- at NeXT -- did Jobs fail.

The history of innovation may play out in headlines as the triumph of the individual against armies of bureaucratic naysayers but you have only to read Walter Isaacson's book The Innovators to see just how untrue it is. Breakthroughs require challenge, doubt, question and support to achieve the reality we can all appreciate. That has always been true and still is.

This isn't an historian's pedantry. Thanks to shows like The Apprentice, Survivor and a plethora of talent contests, the dominant model for success today is the soloist: the ruthless, self-centered individuals who trample everyone underfoot to achieve personal triumph. In real life what this means is that, confronted by job ads, some of which reference teamwork and some of which do not, young people prefer those without: they don't want to work in teams; they want to be solo stars. That's what they've been taught to cherish.

Our education system -- which claims to value "employability" -- reinforces the notion that success is always individual, achieved at the expense of others. At school, you compete against all your friends for grades, class rankings and university places. But then you go to work where everything's different. Recognizing that groups of people see more options and make better decisions than individuals, almost all jobs these days require team work - a core activity for which most graduates are unprepared. Every employer I know struggles with the re-education required before any new hire becomes truly productive as the member of a team. The arts can teach these lessons of collaboration -- music and drama depend on them -- and so can team sports. But those are cut in the interests of isolating intelligence.

And no, great teams aren't just collections of soloists; almost the reverse. At MIT's Center for Collective Intelligence, high IQ was not found to be the defining characteristic of high performing teams. Neither a higher aggregate IQ nor the presence of an individual genius made their teams outstanding. Instead, what researchers found is that great teams are highly tuned into one another, empathetic and equitable: nobody dominates and no one is a passenger. That we lack such contributors on an epic scale is painfully evident in our politics, where we routinely vote for candidates whom we hope (and who sometimes promise) to save the day singlehanded, only to find that what they most need -- willing and skilled collaborators -- are in desperately short supply.

The subtlety and nuance of great collaborations may be harder to dramatize, and inspiring a company of actors may be more challenging than hiring a star, but the truth of creative work is that it happens between people who have the courage to imagine what they cannot see, the stamina to share it for challenge and debate and the openness to listen, change and think again. At its finest, conceiving an idea and bringing it to fruition is an inherently social act: requiring patience, forgiveness, rage, humor, generosity, scrutiny and doubt, alone and together. Simplifying the story misses the story, convincing us mere mortals that, lacking genius, we can do nothing at all. Is that its intent? For certainly, nothing could be further from the truth: alone we lack power but together we can -- or could -- do anything.


Margaret Heffernan's new book, A BIGGER PRIZE, exploring the costs of competition and promise of collaboration, is out now.

This Blogger's Books and Other Items from...