What does genius look like?
A picture of a lone inventor may come to mind, or maybe a poet lost in her head.
Rarely do we think of the kind of collective brilliance that director Daniel Kwan described in one of his many acceptance speeches at the Academy Awards, when he paid homage to his cast and crew, his high school friends and his immigrant parents, all of whom he credited with helping him tap into his genius.
"The world is opening up to the fact that genius does not stem from individuals like us on stage, but rather genius emerges from the collective. We are all products of our context. We are all descendants of something and someone," he said.
"There is greatness in every single person. It doesn't matter who they are. You have a genius that is waiting to erupt. You just need to find the right people to unlock that. Thank you so much to everyone who has unlocked my genius."
Kwan is one-half of filmmaking duo the Daniels (which includes Daniel Scheinert), which won Oscars for directing, writing and producing "Everything Everywhere All At Once," a trippy, parallel-universe film that my colleague Chris Hewitt called "the weirdest movie to win best picture." Whether or not you are a fan of Michelle Yeoh's and Jamie Lee Curtis' hot dog fingers, you can appreciate that a movie this eccentric doesn't pull off a sweep like this without an impressive jolt of originality.
To hear the 35-year-old Kwan explain it on stage, though, it wasn't the Daniels' uncompromising weirdness that carried the film, but the creative gifts flowing through the "hearts and souls and minds" of the actors and crew. Perhaps it should be of no surprise that Kwan that could speak so authentically about the virtues of collectivism. Like me, Kwan was born in the United States to a Taiwanese mother and a father from Hong Kong. Children of immigrants know we are a product of our ancestors, and any individual successes are fundamentally tied to the sacrifices of our parents.
But genius is not a word bandied about lightly, often considered a birthright.
Which is why Kwan's words are still sticking with me weeks after his speech. Over hundreds of years we've been socialized to think about genius as a solo endeavor. But one expert on creativity tells me it's anything but.
"Number one: It's not about the idea," said psychologist Keith Sawyer, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "Number two: It's not about the individual."
Sawyer wrote the book "Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration." Of course innovation may start with a solitary idea, but true creativity — the kind that is surprising and unpredictable — is more likely to emerge if more people are involved in the process, adding their own ideas to the pot, he says. Think of the improvisational twists and turns when jazz musicians come together.
A saxophonist in the midst of a solo may be individually brilliant in that moment. "But the sax player is playing more creatively than he or she would at home," feeding off contributions from the drummer and the bass player, said Sawyer, himself a jazz pianist. "Being part of that ensemble enhances everyone's creativity."
As you might guess, Sawyer believes in the power of in-person workplace interaction, in which spontaneous encounters with colleagues — in the hallways, at the vending machine, near the coffeemaker — produce new ideas almost by accident. Social interaction and meaningful relationships can help workers and their organizations reach their full potential. After COVID shuttered offices, leaders of workspaces consisting of mostly empty cubicles are trying to strike the balance between the flexibility of virtual work and the creativity of collaboration.
There is, of course, a danger to groupthink, the practice of groups making terrible decisions out of a desire for conformity. "I have a whole chapter on group stupidity," Sawyer said.
In hierarchical organizations, efficiency may trump improvisation. People with high status tend to talk more than lower-status workers, he said. I'd add that some workplaces protect at all costs the talent they presume to be lone geniuses, turning a blind eye to patterns of egregious behavior.
But in egalitarian work cultures, where people are listening intently to one another and constantly bouncing off ideas, such exchanges are more likely to lead to unexpected outcomes. Group genius emerges "not just because you have a bunch of people together," Sawyer cautioned. "It involves how they're together."
Leaders must be comfortable with releasing control and placing trust in the collective wisdom of people working together, he said. They establish norms of close listening and a receptiveness to new ideas. They value group diversity and time for tinkering.
At W.L. Gore and Associates, a Delaware-based manufacturing company known for inventing everything from Gore-Tex to Glide dental floss, employees are expected to dedicate 10% of their week to "dabble time" — working on new ideas of their own choosing.
I realize that most people don't want to hear that the secret to creativity is about process and culture. Yet it's encouraging to think that pathways to greatness exist for even those of us who weren't born prodigies. Inviting others to collaborate might not unlock the multiverse, but like Kwan says, it could unlock our genius.