Stand on the shoulders of giants, and focus on innovation whilst in isolation

The lockdown has deprived us of the communal spirit in our lives. Many of us feel this loss acutely, especially as the days lengthen and the fine weather tempts us outside, even as we are told to stay safe inside. Luckily, I can walk in nearby open countryside, but otherwise, we are strictly quarantined.

Working from home is business as usual for me, I’ve been doing so for over ten years, but usually I get out, travel for business meetings, go to the pub, to the football, see friends. Normal life. Not anymore.

What to do in between hand-washing? I’ve put a picture of a rainbow in the window, and applaud fervently our wonderful NHS on Thursdays. It restores my faith in human nature and helps. But I can’t just twiddle my thumbs, and I probably read too much as it is. None of this is funny, of course. I am trying to keep a lid on my anxiety thinking about what the future holds for my business activities, but it flutters there below the surface.

Isolating ourselves during the coronavirus pandemic will affect each of us in different ways, and while these are unprecedented measures for our times, there are examples from history which show people had to adapt to medical crises, sometimes with pretty impressive results. For example, one of the greatest playwrights ever set himself on the road to success after being forced to self-isolate.

William Shakespeare was doing alright for himself in the early 1590s. His portfolio included The Taming of the Shrew, and his reputation in London’s theatre scene was on the up. However, the Great Plague thrived in the capital’s grimy conditions and proved highly infectious. As death rates grew, venues where people congregated were shut, and in an outbreak in 1592, theatres closed for what would turn out to be a two-year period.

Shakespeare, who earned his money as an actor and writer, was thus forced to work alone. He was fortunate to have a patron, the Earl of Southampton, who subsidised him to continue writing. It was during this shelter that Shakespeare found time to write Richard III.

When the playhouses re-opened, Shakespeare’s popularity had grown considerably, but as London reeled from the foiled Gunpowder Plot of 1605, the following summer, the black death made an unwelcome return. By now Shakespeare was no stranger to the task of plying his trade amid difficult conditions and the widespread debilitating illness was no obstacle to him completing three of his great tragedies – King LearMacbeth and Anthony and Cleopatra in 1606.

The Bard was forced to shutter his venue, the Globe Theatre, but even as he worked in isolation, the plague threatened to ensnare Shakespeare in its invisible grasp. From 1603 to 1613, there were so many outbreaks of plague that many theatres were shut for more than 60% of the time – 78 months. He had to recoup lost income with no touring performances, yet this gave him time as a wordsmith to sit alone with his thoughts and pen. That decade would include classics such as Othello and The Tempest.

Mentions of these contemporary events appear in his plays. King Lear, one of his bleakest tragedies, provided an apt description of the plague’s ghastly symptoms by way of the king’s insult to his daughter Goneril: Thou art a boil, A plague-sore, an embossed carbuncle, In my corrupted blood – while Macbeth lamented The dead man’s knell, associated with the plague.

Self-isolation didn’t just bring about additions to the world of literature during these plague years. Scientific discoveries were also made. Cambridge University was forced to close in 1665 due to the plague. This meant that Isaac Newton, a mathematics student at Trinity College, had to return to his family home in Woolsthorpe, Lincolnshire.

Newton experienced his famous inspiration of gravity with the falling apple. By 1666, he had completed his early work on the three Laws of Motion. In the midst of the lockdown, isolation and quarantine, he laid the foundations of what later became the Law of Gravity, changing science forever. It was also during this eighteen-month hiatus and lockdown that he conceived the method of calculus, set foundations for his theory of light and colour, and gained insight into the laws of planetary motion, insights that eventually led to the publication of his epic work Principia in 1687.

Our own experiences in the ‘isolation economy’ may not be as productive, but we are getting increasingly used to working alone, from home. Unfortunately, however, as we work in isolation, we miss out on some of the positive elements of workplace interaction and collaboration that we have taken for granted.

As working from home becomes the new norm, we will need to relearn many of our previous collaborative activities and make them as productive they used to be, while secluded at home. Even though remote work has certain advantages and may also enhance personal fulfilment in many respects, innovation is one thing that becomes harder to do.

Innovation in isolation is hard because human creativity needs idea sharing and interaction to flourish and spark. Breakthroughs rarely come from lone inventors who toil alone. Instead, they thrive when ideas are shared, challenged, and refined. The ability to share ideas is the primary reason innovation is localised – Silicon Valley and Seattle have become the hotbeds for technology innovation.

Innovation happens when knowledge builds on knowledge and ideas build on ideas. When you are isolated, working from home, you have fewer collaborative and spontaneous encounters, save by virtual conferencing. The serendipity of innovation suffers without these face-to-face encounters, that often lead to flashes of creativity.

But innovation is still possible. I am a firm believer in the power of teams fusing together to build something greater than what is possible creating alone, but I sometimes wonder, given the examples earlier, do we have the ability to work on our own?

We all need time alone to collect our thoughts sometimes. I have come to appreciate the opportunity to sit alone and be anonymous at some points. This gives me a break from all of the things that we do in our busy times, catch up on my own thinking, reflect, and clarify. Is the ability to be alone something we all possess?

An emerging body of research is suggesting that spending time alone, if done right, can be good for us. Just as regular exercise and healthy eating make our minds and bodies work better, so can solitude. After all, if we are to be creative and innovative, we have to be able to individually bring something to the table. The ability to connect with ourselves is important.

A couple of years ago I came across a book, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, by Mason Currey. In it he examines the schedules of painters, writers, and composers, as well as philosophers, scientists, and other exceptional thinkers. He hypothesised that for these creatives, a solo routine was surprisingly essential to their work. As Currey puts it A solid routine fosters a well-worn groove for one’s mental energies and helps stave off the tyranny of moods.

He noted several common elements in the lives of creatives that allowed them to pursue a productivity-enhancing routine when working alone. Here are the highlights Currey identified in the structure, routine and habits that seem to enable creative and innovative thinking whilst working on their own:

A workspace with minimal distractions Jane Austen asked that a certain squeaky door hinge never be oiled, so that she always had a warning when someone was approaching the room where she wrote. Mark Twain’s family knew better than to breach his study door. Graham Greene went even further, renting a secret office, only his wife knew the address and telephone number. Having your own personal, private workplace, drives your thinking.

A daily walk For many, a regular daily walk was essential to brain functioning. Soren Kierkegaard found his constitutionals so inspiring that he would often rush back to his desk and resume writing, still wearing his hat and carrying his walking stick or umbrella. Charles Dickens famously took three-hour walks every afternoon and what he observed on them fed directly into his writing. Beethoven took lengthy strolls after lunch, carrying a pencil and paper with him in case inspiration struck. Being on your own, stimulates creativity.

A clear dividing line between important work and busywork It amazed me to see the amount of time the isolationists allocated to discipline. Many would divide the day into real work (such as composing or painting in the morning) and busywork (answering letters in the afternoon). Others would turn to the busywork when the real work wasn’t going well. Ernest Hemingway always tracked his daily word output on a chart ‘so as not to kid myself’, but left dedicated time for letter writing. Use isolation time to give structure, not boredom.

A habit of stopping when they’re on a roll, not when they’re stuck Hemingway puts it well: You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again. Arthur Miller said, I don’t believe in draining the reservoir, I believe in getting up from the typewriter, away from it, while I still have things to say. For today, the lesson is stop-start in isolation maybe a rhythm that works.

Limited social lives One of Simone de Beauvoir’s friends put it this way: There were no parties, no receptions, no bourgeois values; it was an uncluttered kind of life, a simplicity deliberately constructed so that she could do her work. Pablo Picasso and his girlfriend Fernande Olivier borrowed the idea of Sunday as an ‘at-home day’ to enable undisrupted painting, and kept themselves to themselves. Whilst we have no social lives at present, hold the thought that successful innovators keep themselves to themselves.

Creative people like to teach themselves rather than be taught by others. Many innovators and creatives dropped out of school – Bill Gates, Steve Jobs were autodidact, they preferred figuring things out independently, rather than being spoon-fed information. Because their thinking is different, they preferred to learn on their own – so grab this time to teach yourself.

Boredom is also an important consideration here, even if your focus is on solving the problem of boredom itself. For example, Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein to entertain herself during the lockdown in the summer of 1816 due to the Mount Tambora volcano eruption. Also, Michelangelo who, in order to alleviate his boredom, spent two months in a small room painting on the walls with chalk and charcoal after supporting a revolt against the Medici which forced him to isolate.

When the pandemic subsides, the most prepared will thrive. Our current circumstances introduce a person to know thyself. Every adversity in life advances us into the next level. COVID-19 will alter our futures, but you alone will determine how you will emerge from it. There is a movement lockdown, but your brain need not be lockdown. Your aspiration and ambitions must not be lockdown. Your thinking must not be locked down.

Use this time of isolation for innovation. Stand on the shoulders of giants, develop thinking during traumatic times, be creative during chaos. Don’t allow isolation to erode your entrepreneurial mojo. This lockdown can be your finest hour, days and weeks.