The myth of the Lone Genius | The Triangle

The myth of the Lone Genius

Here in America, the lifeblood of the modern startup is the entrepreneur. 

In today’s culture, launching a company is as simple as one well-connected person having a very good idea. From Microsoft and Google to Apple and Amazon, titans of Silicon Valley and beyond rise from nothing to become skyscrapers of industry from the well-nurtured ideas of lone visionaries and their indomitable will to create.

At least, that’s what they want you to think.

Jobs. Zuckerberg. Gates. Buffet. Even as far back as Edison, the founding father of the cult-of-personality tech business, companies have tried to pitch their spokespersons as magnanimous faces-of-the-company who know everything about the field and built everything from scratch. We eat it up, of course. Who does not love the conqueror, the leader, the CEO? Much easier to relate to a company’s goals, to understand its vision, when said ideals are preached through a charismatic figurehead Wizard-of-Oz style. 

In reality, companies are built from people. The story so many know about Steve Jobs being the face to Steve Wozniak’s brain has some founding — Wozniak really did build the first two Apple computer models personally. But to imply that it was the actions of these two men in a Los Altos garage that single-handedly resulted in the world’s most valuable brand would be reductive of the cumulative actions of 40 years of employees. Wozniak left Apple in 1985. Every single product since then has been designed, tested, manufactured and shipped by countless employees microengineering everything from screws to camera lenses. To treat the achievements of a company as exclusive to the top brass would be to disregard countless small achievements.

What I am trying to pin down, exactly, is this great American fallacy of singular action. Everyone in the U.S. wants to be the hero, the inventor, the great leader, the first-place prize. None of us want to admit all the collective action that went into everything we ever accomplish. Amazon started when Jeff Bezos had a good idea, yes — but software engineers, managers, designers and thousands of other workers making hundreds of thousands of decisions built it into the company it is today.

But of course, the myth continues. They are giants, standing alone, with nobody on their shoulders. Pay no attention to the 40,000 people behind the curtain.