December 13, 2013
I recently did a TED Talk here in Brooklyn and the conference’s theme was teamwork. The first thing I thought when assigned the task was, “I don”t want to be part of that.” Teamwork is the bane of my existence. Almost every day I attend meetings with creative types where 50% of our time is spent placating the incompetents. We say, “That’s an interesting idea, Jennifer,” but we”re thinking, “can I go back to my desk now?”
Today’s work culture is all about the team and has supplanted the power of the individual. That’s downright un-American. Glenn Beck recently had Michelle Malkin on his show, and they were both talking about the “tinkerpreneurs” who built this country. Malkin had given Beck’s book a rave review and it has inspired her to do her own book tentatively called Who Built That: The Tinkerpreneurs Who Built Everything From the Bottle Cap to Bridges. Both books take a huge dump on the idea of the team. They strive to put the maverick back in the driver’s seat of American history. As Beck puts it, “The power of an individual who trusts his gut can be found in the story of the man who stopped the twentieth hijacker from being part of 9/11.” On the show, they discussed Obama’s “You didn”t build that” quote and both agreed it’s a very dangerous mentality that belittles the entrepreneur.
It’s not just a pain in the economy’s ass. Collectivism is a virus that has infected everything we do. I”m presently trying to get my kids into better schools and I”ve noticed the administrators fall into two categories: those who encourage the individual and those who think teamwork trumps personal development.
If my daughter becomes obsessed with sharks, I want you to teach her the math of sharks. How many are left? Teach her the geography of sharks. Where are they most prevalent? Teach her economics by discussing Japan’s harvesting of shark fins, etc. I asked one teacher if she”d be willing to tailor assignments to a particular student’s interests and when I provided the above example she said, “Well, we”d try to get everyone involved in sharks so they could share her interest.” What a depressing notion. Now every student has to be dragged into every other student’s passion until nobody’s passionate about anything.
Outside of my personal experience and a briefcase full of hunches, all I had to prove my hypothesis were books such as Free Radicals: The Secret Anarchy of Science, which discusses how important it is for scientists to have the freedom to be eccentric nonconformists. So before the talk, I interviewed doctors, scientists, and engineers. They all had very different experiences but almost unanimously agreed that teamwork is overrated. The engineers acknowledged that they need teamwork to get the job done, but most of them explained that their jobs were relatively mundane and involved replicating the work of pioneers from long ago. When I asked them what happens to the geniuses in their field today, they said most get bogged down by the team and are seen as troublemakers when they stray from what has become a very structured way of doing business. They all told me they would be nothing without inventors such as William Shockley who invented the transistor and courageously brought us from the era of vacuum tubes to the semiconductors that define computer hardware today. The message I got from the engineers was basically that their jobs are all about teamwork but without innovators, there are no jobs there in the first place.
The doctors I spoke to, especially the older ones, rolled their eyes when I brought up teamwork. They said the very nature of medicine is anti-teamwork because making one valid discovery is based on dozens and dozens of experiments that don”t pan out. To drag a team down an endless list of dead ends simply isn”t plausible, they said. Barry Marshall couldn”t convince his peers that stomach ulcers were caused by bacteria, so he swallowed the bacteria himself and was proved correct shortly after when it gave him both an ulcer and a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
The engineers lamented the lack of individualism in their profession and the doctors seemed annoyed by teamwork, but the scientists I spoke to about it were downright pissed. “Scientists are lemmings.” one biochemist told me. “They”re teamwork at its worst. They”re a mob.” He went on to tell me that his day consists of trying out ridiculous hypothesis after ridiculous hypothesis and when he’s finally successful, his peers viciously attack his findings trying to find a hole. When the data proves him right, everyone jumps onboard and wants to be part of the findings.
He told me when you hear of scientific teams working on a project, it’s usually one leader and several glorified employees. There was a plethora of examples of renegade scientists changing the world (most of whom are mentioned in Free Radicals), and I listed them all in my talk. Craig Venter was one of the first to sequence the human genome and he was able to think that far outside the box because he did LSD by himself. Barbara McClintock was a funny old lady who researched chromosomes by herself for thousands of hours. She is the reason we understand the evolving nature of dangerous tumors. Her studies of cytogenetics are the reason we know to finish all of our antibiotics. Without her, cancer treatments would still be in the dark ages. Kary Mullis improved the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) technique and it was so consequential that like the transistor, biologists talk of their field as pre-PCR and post-PCR. James Watson codiscovered DNA’s structure with fellow molecular biologist Francis Crick. Isn”t that kind of a team?