Bullish: Teamwork Is Overrated (How To Be A Lone Unicorn)


The idiom for a person who acts alone is “lone wolf.” (Lone Wolf was also a Kiowa chief, and Lone Wolf McQuade was a character played by Chuck Norris in the 1983 film of the same name.)

I started thinking about lone wolves when a friend told me her hiring problem. She posted a job listing for a fundraiser – a very good, executive-level job – and everyone who applied kept talking about how they work well in teams.

Interviewer: “What’s the first thing you would do?”

Many candidates: “I’d assemble a great team!”

Interviewer: “No. Your team includes this receptionist. She’s right here. Try again.”

It was clear from the job posting that the person hired would need to “identify new sources of funding and raise adequate funds to enable the organization to carry out its work,” along with various responsibilities in grant writing, managing a budget and overseeing audits, and all kinds of other tasks that don’t involve “hiring people to do the work for you” or “having long meetings with your peers in which you discuss via groupthink how to do the work so you can avoid taking full responsibility for the outcome.”

And yet, repeatedly, candidates would talk about their teamwork abilities, and be met with, “Um, no. You have to actually do the work yourself.”

Ultimately, my friend was able to hire someone fabulous, but only after weeding through lots and lots of team players who cannot function independently.

When Teamwork is Valuable

If you’re going to get an MBA, you’re probably going to spend at least the next decade of your career working in a large company (how else are you going to pay off the degree?)

Business schools are heavily focused on preparing people to work in large corporations. Thus, much of the structure of business school itself mimics this: you will have a “cohort”, and you will join study groups, and you will get along with your classmates despite your many differences. You will be graded at least in part on class participation and group projects.

The larger and more established the company, the more important teamwork probably is. An executive at a major consulting firm told me that managing relationships was his main job, and the actual work was incidental.

If no one around you ever advocates a strong and unusual course of action, does an entire project alone, puts her name on the end project, and takes responsibility if the project fails, then your doing so is either brilliant or foolish. It’s hard to say.

In Bullish: Social Class in the Office I talked about the WASPy, milquetoast way people speak in corporate America. (I love working with contractors because I can easily tell them, “I do not want to pay you anymore because you are not generating results,” and it’s not some big political issue with someone I have to share a bathroom with every Monday through Friday.)

If you can’t call out an idea as a fucking stupid waste of money, it’s pretty likely that a bunch of people will go along with just such an idea (especially if the boss likes it), knowing that no one will really take the hit when the idea reaches its inevitable disastrous conclusion.

There are benefits and drawbacks to such a work environment. In the U.S., big companies are the easiest path to health insurance.

And if your EQ is way higher than your IQ – and you couldn’t produce anything of value if I locked you alone in a room full of books, computers, and sandwiches for a million years – then you’d sure as hell better try to attach yourself to a team.

You Can Say No to Big Brother

In the NYTimes’ The Rise of the New Groupthink, Susan Cain wrote,

Solitude is out of fashion. Our companies, our schools and our culture are in thrall to an idea I call the New Groupthink, which holds that creativity and achievement come from an oddly gregarious place. Most of us now work in teams, in offices without walls, for managers who prize people skills above all. Lone geniuses are out. Collaboration is in.

But there’s a problem with this view. Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption.

She cites a study of computer programmers in which the distinguishing factor in how well the programmers performed was how much “privacy, personal workspace and freedom from interruption” they enjoyed. She tells us of visits to hell-schools where all learning is collaborative; the desks are in pods, and questions may only be asked if entire groups share the same question. Conversely, “According to research on expert performance by the psychologist Anders Ericsson, the best way to master a field is to work on the task that’s most demanding for you personally. And often the best way to do this is alone. Only then, Mr. Ericsson told me, can you ‘go directly to the part that’s challenging to you.’”

There’s more! “Decades of research show that individuals almost always perform better than groups in both quality and quantity, and group performance gets worse as group size increases.” Group brainstorming is objectively ineffective, and the reason it fails is representative of the reason other forms of group work also falter: “People in groups tend to sit back and let others do the work; they instinctively mimic others’ opinions and lose sight of their own; and, often succumb to peer pressure.”

When You Must Be a Lone Unicorn

Why do we have to be wolves? I looked up some information on lone wolves and someone on Yahoo! answers wrote:

In a pack there will always be a leader and a clear structure. If the wolf cannot abide by life under the alpha or is just too frisky or different to work with the rest then it will leave in search of another pack. Its objective is usually to take over, join or form a new pack.

The benefit for the individual wolf is it (usually he) does not have to share food, look after weaker members or fend off challenges. The successful hunter can very quickly attain bulk and strength so when it finds a pack it has a good chance of beating down the alpha male and mating.

Sounds really good, right? I CANNOT ABIDE BY LIFE UNDER THE ALPHA. AM FRISKY, TOO DIFFERENT. HATE SHARING FOOD. (Did I just write an OKCupid profile?!) There was also some stuff I edited about avoiding inbreeding.

Also, while googling lone wolves, I came across this ESL forum, where English Language Learners were being told that a “lone wolf” is a “lonely person”! Not so! I joined just so I could correct this misconception. (In some languages, “alone” and “lonely” are the same word. That’s got to be … formative.)

But anyway: wolves. Why wolves? You know what else runs alone? Unicorns. (See Bullish: How to Be a Productivity Unicorn.)

A lone unicorn doesn’t totally eschew the company of other unicorns. Oh, no! When injustice reigns, unicorns shoot energy from their horns and other unicorns come to fight injustice, also with horn-energy, and stompings.

Unicorns are also totally fine with outsourcing things to other unicorns. Little-known fact: all unicorns know each other. So they have wide networks. But they also like to make rainbows all by themselves. They have discovered that when many unicorns collaborate to make a rainbow, the rainbows take fucking forever to get done.

My friend’s hiring problem reminded me of a similar story I told in Bullish: Starting A Business When You’re Broke – I was passed over for a Director of Marketing job at a twelve-person startup in favor of a woman who came from a corporate marketing background. During her nine week trial period, she made a Powerpoint presentation. Full stop.

When they fired her and called me back in, this Powerpoint became mine. I ignored it. It was basically a bunch of charts and bullet points on the topic of how we would market ourselves if we had a lot more people and a lot more money. Not helpful.

Instead, I set about organizing mixers (hint: if you bring paying customers into a bar, you don’t have to pay the bar to hold an event) and organizing online contests (marketing budget: one $100 Amex gift card). I wrote in Bullish: How to Sell Without Selling about the value of speaking and event planning in getting clients to come to you.

Being a lone unicorn is a typical and useful state of being for freelancers and entrepreneurs. But it can also boost you up in small, flexible companies – if I have to lay off almost everybody, I’m going to keep the person who can work alone, and if I have limited money for raises, I’m going to allocate it towards the person who will produce the most for the money.

I also wrote in Bullish: How to Run Your Career Like a Business about being an “intrapreneur,” a person who starts a new division or income stream within an existing company. (I write all the time about the value of pitching things – keep this on your radar even if you work at a 9-to-5.) To a pack animal, intrapreneurship seems like a lot of responsibility and risk! And who would tell you how to do it?

To a lone unicorn, this seems like the perfect setup – all the resources handed to you to have an entrepreneurial experience, and the only risk is to your reputation (rather than your credit). To someone who can function independently, that’s the kind of risk one needs to take at least every couple of years.

Lone-Unicorn Networking and Productivity

My colleague on TheGloss, Andrea Dunlop, is one of the Girls Friday at Girl Friday Productions – a “boutique editing and writing firm that combines the talents and expertise of five publishing professionals with smart mouths and brains to match.”

I was curious how this sort-of-freelancing, sort-of-a-company situation worked, and emailed Andrea, who replied:

Girl Friday was started a number of years ago by my colleagues Ingrid and Leslie. The four of us who are in Seattle share an office and our Portland member pays regular visits. We all have backgrounds in traditional book publishing (the others as editors, I as a publicist). My colleagues all have kids so they really wanted the flexibility of freelance work but as I’m sure you know, freelancing can be incredibly lonely and difficult, hence the decision to work together.

The company is ever-evolving and all kinds of different work comes in from publishers, authors, companies–anyone who needs something written/ edited/ publicized. It’s fun because it’s a wider variety of work than any of us would get on our own and we all bring different skills to the table that can benefit the company. We also don’t get caught in that trap where we have to start turning work away just as there starts to be enough of it.

I hated working a nine-to-five and having a boss and all of that but I also didn’t like working from home alone, I really missed the social interaction and having cool, smart, knowledgeable colleagues to brainstorm with. It’s great to be at once responsible for your own work and time and also to feel a part of something bigger.

When I pressed her for details – How can other people arrange their working lives in similarly unicornly ways?! – she wrote:

As far as how Girl Friday works: the company has been around since 2006, we’re an LLC that operates much like a law firm, in that we each bring in our own work and clients but also share out work that’s common to the business as a whole based on availability and who is best for the job. Part of our fees go to paying overhead and operating expenses, such as a shared office and communication needs, and there is quarterly profit sharing.

Well, there you go. And I would also like to report that, following my column on How to Hold a Ladies’ Working Brunch, I have held a few more such events, in which ladies work alone, then devour canapes at specifically-timed breaks.

In Closing

I feel like I write these columns for women who are trying to do hard, great, risky things – and who are made to feel by those around them that they’re crazy, or trying too hard, or not playing along.

I’m here to tell you to either beat those people at everything, or just ignore them.

Then they can go to networking events and mouth the same stale platitudes and chit-chat to each other that they say all the time, because they have nothing to show for themselves but a lot of contacts in their phone and another year’s paycheck in exchange for another year’s job attendance. Unicorns say: fuck that.

originally published on The Grindstone