It’s 1716, and in an Italian market town, Antonio Stradivari, the greatest of all violin makers, is starting work on the instrument that will remain his most valuable, 300 years on.
In his attic workshop, high above the distractions of the world, he focuses intently on how his knife removes fractions of millimetres of wood. Shaving by shaving, the violin is uncovered from the solid block of spruce.
The solo craftsman, focused on perfecting his craft to the highest of his ability. The remarkable, innovative genius, with lost notebooks full of the secrets of his method.
Or perhaps not.
Why we love the myth of the great creator
We love the Solo Genius. Stradivari, Einstein, Steve Jobs – the great minds taking our culture and society to a new level.
Those secrets! That insight! That knowledge!
Maybe we too can be that amazing! We just need to get our heads down, work a bit harder, think a bit more.
Then we can create the thing we truly want… our business, our next project, a home, a life we love.
We’ll be able to use our unique abilities to make a difference to ourselves and those around us.
But we’re missing something essential.
Or rather, we’ve caught a bug in the myth of that draughty Italian loft. I call it Solo Genius Syndrome.
What a 18th century artisan can teach us about success
Let’s go back to that Italian workshop.
But now it’s not so quiet. In 1716, Antonio Stradivari is in his early 60s. Working away beside him is his eldest son, already 45 and a highly skilled craftsman, and his slightly younger brother, also pretty handy with the tools. In the corner is Antonio’s 13-year-old son from his second marriage, who’s recently joined as an apprentice. It’s entirely likely that that at least one of his daughters is helping with the business – maybe carving, dealing with customers, or sending out the invoices to the rich and famous who are commissioning Antonio’s work.
He’s well-connected and a well-established citizen in the town. And a master craftsman of Stradivari’s status probably has other apprentices and assistants, all helping the autocratic paterfamilias produce the thousand-plus instruments that come from his workshop during his life.
Stradivari was undoubtedly a genius.
But the scale of his success wasn’t because he worked alone.
It’s because he didn’t.
If Stradivari had remained a lone craftsman, he would have made a fraction of the instruments he did. And that means two things.
Firstly, mastery comes from practice, innovation, experimentation and more practice. The more you do, the better you get. Stradivari’s greatest instruments come late in his life – when he’s already made, or overseen, hundreds and hundreds of them. There’s no doubt that he remained in charge of what was being produced, but with other hands working for him he had the time to observe, experiment and improve, again and again.
If you don’t get enough practice, you’ll never be a master. (But others will).
Secondly, his fame came partly because he had enough instruments out there. His name spread through travelling musicians, through word of mouth, through his instruments being taken across Europe to the courts and halls where famous musicians played. Crucially, he had enough instruments out there for lots of people to see them. If he’d been trying to do it all himself, that would have been impossible.
If you’re not producing, you can’t be visible. If you’re not visible, you can’t be successful.
You don’t need to be making violins, or even actual stuff. But you do need to be doing your thing. The thing that you’re good at. Over and over and over again.
And you need the time and energy to do it, while keeping everything else going.
Otherwise you’re just an obscure, starving artist. Which is ok, if draughty garrets and dry toast over a gas flame appeal to you.
How to break out of Solo Genius Syndrome
You don’t need a team of family and apprentices to break out of Solo Genius Syndrome.
But you do need a team. Maybe of family, maybe of friends. Maybe colleagues, peers. People you hire and people you have coffee with. People you adore and people who irritate you (but get the job done).
You need people around you to help you magnify your dreams and visions, to solve problems, to get things done, and to allow you to use your genius in the most effective way.
That’s equally true whether you’re in a corporate job, running your own business, or trying to achieve personal dreams.
Your team doesn’t need to be formal. It doesn’t need to be paid, by you or anyone else (at least, not in money).
Let me confess something here. I’m just as guilty of this. Solo Genius Syndrome can strike at any time.
I can easily waste hours trying to do something that isn’t using my skills.
I can spend days trying to find an answer to a problem that someone else could solve instantly.
But I’ve developed a foolproof set of questions that I can use to get myself out of Solo Genius Syndrome condition.
It’s simple, though the deeper you’re into Solo Genius mode, the more uncomfortable it can be. But do it, and it’s really powerful.
Take one project you’re creating and which isn’t going as fast as you’d like. Just one, no matter how much is going on.
Identify one thing you want to do next and which is holding you up. A concrete action that needs to happen, or a problem that you need to solve.
If it’s holding you up, that means you’ll do it faster and better by getting someone else involved.
That’s going to be:
Someone to help you do a practical action
Someone to help you solve a problem that’s stopping you taking action.
If it’s a practical action, work out who you know who can do it. If you don’t know, who can you ask you will know?
(Need to create a child’s birthday party invitation? Go to Fiverr. Need a web designer? Email 5 colleagues for recommendations. Need to proofread a specialist report? Ask a colleague who’s great at detail).
Then go and ask them. If it’s about money, find out how much it will cost you, or look for alternative ways doing things: skills swaps, or simple favours you can return at a later date. Be creative. Use your friends, your colleagues, or investigate freelance sites such as Fiverr or Upwork.
Alternatively, you need help with solving a problem or making a decision.
Work out whether you need technical information, or a sounding board. If you don’t know what you need, who can help you work it out?
Then take action. Really.
Pick up the phone. Drop someone an email. Ask the question.
Why Solo Genius Syndrome stops you actually achieving
What holds us back from reaching out is the myth that we somehow should be able to do it ourselves.
As though it might be a sign of weakness, or failure, to need someone else to help.
And that procrastination holds us back, time and again.
Your challenge, today, is to involve one person in something you’re creating who wasn’t involved earlier.
Just take yourself through those steps, and take action. It’s that simple.
About that violin…
The violin that Stradivari started carving that day is now in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, know as the ‘Messiah’. It’s the most perfectly preserved of any of his instruments. Next time you’re in Oxford, go and take a look. And ask yourself: whose hands made it, from start to finish? Who chose the wood, outlined the shape, did the rough carving before the final shaping, mixed the varnish, applied the multiple layers of colour? Antonio? One of his sons? We’ll never know. But it was his skills in not creating alone that make him one of our great geniuses.