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How to Become a Genius, or Appreciate a Cloud
Collaborative Circles and Get Together
Our common beliefs about creativity are wrong. We admire the lone genius, holed up in a remote location, toiling away at their craft until all at once they gift the public with the creative fruits of their labor. Albert Einstein described the Swiss patent office as his “worldly cloister where I hatched my beautiful ideas,” designing thought experiments in his ample free time. He used his solitary time to great effect, publishing five world-altering papers on the nature of space and time in his annus mirabilis of 1905. Isaac Newton had his own “Year of Wonders” during the plague of 1665, during which he fled Cambridge for rural Woolsthorpe. Alone for the summer and separated from his colleagues, he had his fateful encounter with the apple orchard outside his bedroom window and discovered the mechanics of optics. The National Trust website on Woolsthorpe Manor compares the conditions of 1665 to those of 2020, and I recall making similar comments to my friends at the beginning of lockdown in 2020 — who knew what discoveries and achievements might be the silver lining of the pandemic?
Yet there is another, less celebrated path to significant creative achievement, more accessible to those of us who are no Einstein or Newton. Collaborative Circles, published by Michael Farrell in 2001, establishes a theory of how creative work and significant advances in all fields can be the product of communities rather than individuals. Regular members who might never have otherwise participated in a field become important contributors, and talented individuals reach new heights. Using a series of case studies across creative fields, Farrell argues that a certain type of social circle can be more than the sum of its parts.
While the case studies each flesh out different aspects of the theory, taken together they can be a bit of a dry and academic read. I found the Impressionists, and the stories of Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, Claude Monet, and Frederic Bazille most interesting and accessible — and focus on them here.
Collaborative Circles and Where to Find Them
Farrell dedicates significant time to what a collaborative circle looks like and how it begins. Collaborative Circles outlines five key formation conditions:
A “magnet place,” or location where ambitious individuals seeking mastery of their chosen discipline tend to gather. For the Impressionists, that was Paris — it was the center of the art world in the late 19th century.
Fluctuations in the internal cultural dynamics of the discipline. In one of the most poetic and evocative phrases of the book, Farrell describes this cultural element as the “weather pattern passing over the landscape” of the magnet place. In the late 19th century, the most prestigious and respected paintings were realistic depictions of mythology and grand historic events. But Gustav Courbet pushed the boundaries of respectability by painting the daily lives of ordinary people, and Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot’s landscape paintings anticipated the innovations of the Impressionists to come.
Within the magnet place, a lack mentorship from established masters drives prospective members to turn to their peers for education and support. Teachers found Renoir, Sisley, Monet, and Bazille unserious or unpromising at the beginning of their careers. The four turned to each other, and to trailblazing rebels like Edouard Manet.
Potential members who are in the same life stage and have shared identities and interests. Circles form organically out of existing social groups. Renoir, Sisley, Monet, and Bazille were all young painters who found each other just as they were learning to paint in the teaching studio of Charles Gleyre.
A “gatekeeper” who vets prospective members and serves as a connector, bringing the initial group together. Collaborative circles tend to have 3–5 members, according to Farrell, and rarely have more than 7–8. Bazille was the gatekeeper for the Impressionists, befriending Renoir in the studio, introducing him to Sisley, and adding Monet to their core four. He also was the initial connector of the group to Manet, who in turn introduced Pissarro, Degas, Cezanne, and many of the larger group who would eventually form the Impressionists.
Once formed, collaborative circles tend to have a core activity or ritual — for writers, it may be a weekly reading or critique of submitted work. The Impressionists met up at Café Guerbois in Paris after a day of painting to discuss their work and lives. The core ritual creates the space for shared creative visions to develop.
Beyond the core ritual, however, successful communities create space for members to interact independently and use prompts and structure to spark those connections. Space is required for what Farrell calls “collaborative pairs,” where the greater intimacy of a 1:1 relationship can help members develop and nurture nascent ideas which may be too fragile for exposure to the entire group. Hammering out an initial vision, style, or technique using a creative pair as a filter strengthens ideas to withstand scrutiny in the wider circle and increases chances of adoption. Among the Impressionists, Auguste Renoir often paired with Alfred Sisley, Claude Monet with Frederic Bazille — but it was Renoir and Monet painting together at the restaurant La Grenouillere outside Paris who discovered how adjusting their brushstrokes could “capture the play of light on water” and how rapidly painting the same scene quickly could capture changes in the light and atmosphere of a subject. We don’t know whether Monet or Renoir discovered the technique first — both did it together.
Groups often rebel against the status quo in their early stages. French painting was dominated by the annual Salons — massive shows with thousands of attendees where the right painting could make an artist’s career. Juries selected paintings for the Salon and stamped rejects on the back of the canvas. Refuse stamps usually rendered the work almost worthless. The Impressionists submitted work to the Salons for years, failing time and again. They grew disdainful of the standards of the juries, even as they struggled for acceptance. Farrell believes this antagonism and rebellion is a crucial stage in the formation of a collaborative circle — members often define their vision of who they are in part by starting with who they are not.
The failures at the Salon led to the next stage of the group, wherein Impressionists created their own separate shows in the 1870s. These were initially ridiculed by the press and public. Over time, however, these shows were seen as ground-breaking and influential, and contributed to the decline of the Salon system in France. Successful circles can make creative leaps and discoveries which would never have occurred to an individual member without participation in the community.
Published in 2001, Collaborative Circles’s applicability today suffers in one respect. Magnet places are no longer tied to geography, thanks to the internet. Farrell spends only a single paragraph on the potential of the web. He speculates (correctly) that it may allow like-minded people scattered across the globe to find each other, then dismisses online communication as not deep or wide-ranging enough to drive personal development or creative work.
I’m inclined to disagree. Harry and Josh, two members of my own writing group, have written about how Twitter, done right, can surface people all over the world with similar interests and ambitions. Slack groups and Discord channels exist for every niche and interest. There are few mentors on the internet, and plenty of incumbents to rebel against. There are new gatekeepers too; On Deck wants to be the “Stanford of the Internet,” and other startups are trying to replicate the interactions and connections of a physical university online.
Yet there is something to Farrell’s point — to build a lasting community with enough depth and consistency to make true creative advances, you must do more than join a cohort-based class and make new friends you Zoom with on occasion. Collaborative Circles outlines the theory and benefits of creative friendships and communities, but spends little time on how to build one for those interested.
Get Together: Better Than Dale Carnegie
Filling that gap is Get Together, a community-building handbook written by Bailey Richardson, Kevin Huynh, and Kai Elmer Soto, (collectively known as People & Co.) and published by Stripe Press in 2019. It’s truly a handbook, with included worksheets and pages designed for the reader to brainstorm, review, and take notes. Get Together is designed for the 21st century; online communities feature heavily in its examples.
Both Get Together and Collaborative Circles approach communities through a chronological lens, beginning with community formation and building towards maturity. While Farrell outlines the typical reasons for community dissolution, People & Co. focus on tools and techniques to avoid declines. Each book has its own view as to the stages of a community – Farrell identifies six stages of a collaborative circle, while People & Co outline three phases of community development: “Sparking the Flame,” “Stoking the Fire,” and “Passing the Torch.” The frameworks line up neatly, which is handy for a gatekeeper who wants to push their community to the next level:
Get Together’s first part, “Sparking the Flame” is written for a prospective gatekeeper who wants to build a community. People & Co.’s practical advice is to start by identifying allies who share interests, places, and physical spaces. With allies in hand, the focus should initially be on those who are already motivated and committed for the long-term.
Founding a Community:
Having found an initial nucleus of potential members, People & Co. argue for a positive definition of community purpose at the founding stage. The Cloud Appreciation Society states its purpose in the name. The Society is a group organized around taking photos of particularly beautiful clouds, and “fighting the banality of blue sky thinking”. This may not work for collaborative circles, however, which typically generate their creative vision over time through an iterative process.
Founders should incorporate a core activity or ritual which can be repeated for each meeting, giving community members a reason to return and an accountability mechanism. A repeatable, participatory activity also attracts new members.
Finally, it’s important to create space for relationships to blossom outside the core activity — this is how collaborative pairings can form, increasing the creative potential of the entire group.
Managing a Community:
Get Together addresses the needs of the executive manager in Part 2, “Stoke the Fire” phase, where the focus turns to attracting new group members by building a public narrative and creating a group identity.
Key elements include refining the origin story of the community and sharing personal experiences of the benefits of community involvement, along with creating visible signs of membership for the outside world – these could take the form of inside jokes/language, a group name (think Beyonce’s Beyhive, Arsenal’s Gooners, or Harry Potter’s Potterheads), or a visual badge – for the Ultras, wearing Bloomer pants was a revolutionary act and instant sign that a woman was a part of the activist movement.
Communities tend to burn out after a while, which Farrell highlights in his “Disintegration Stage”, but Get Together has a series of techniques in “Passing the Torch” for enabling the community to live beyond the founder’s active involvement. For those just looking for creative inspiration, this is less critical, but if you want your community to become an institution, succession planning and empowering the next generation is critical.
Conclusion: Go Find Your Collaborative Circle!
In my corner of the internet, there’s a lot of talk about the rise of “the creator economy” and “the Sovereign Individual” Many believe that as old institutions decline, individuals will step into the gap. Building a personal brand is a key part of building a thriving career. Software and communications technology have made it possible for one person to do far more than before — running a thriving software business, a VC fund, or influential media outlet.
For many, this is liberating; for others, it’s exhausting. Collaborative Circles suggests an alternative to succeeding on your own — find your community first, and work with them to build and create a fulfilling life. Get Together can help you found your community, if you’re proactive and a go-getter. There’s hope for those of us who will never be an Einstein or Newton — we just have to find our tribe first.
Read: The Introduction and Chapter 1, which outline Farrell’s vision for a collaborative circle and introduce the core concepts and stages. These can be a bit dry and the examples from The Inklings aren’t always super compelling, but hang tight, as Chapter 2, the case study on the Impressionists, does a great job of providing a real illustration of all the different parts of Farrell’s theory. Finally, read the conclusion, Chapter 7. Farrell gets painterly in his description of magnet places and the conditions conducive for circle formation.
Skim: Chapter 6, which is the case study on The Ultras, particularly Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. There isn’t a lot it adds to the Read sections above, but the history of the Ultras and their role in the women’s rights movement is fascinating. Given the Ultras didn’t all live in the same place, it also maybe hints at what collaborative circles may look like in the internet age.
Skip: Chapters 3–5, which go more in depth on collaborative pairs. I didn’t find these case studies of old white dude writers as compelling as the rest, and you can get all the core conceptual juice from the intro/conclusion.
This is a handbook. If you are trying to start or manage a community, it’s worth reading the book in detail, filling out the worksheets, throwing in sticky notes, and carrying the thing around with you everywhere until some of the shine comes off the radiant cover. Otherwise, this isn’t for you! Skip it all!
Thanks to the folks of Team Canis (Kate, Josh, Emily, Manish, Harry and Arun) for their feedback. A few months is too soon to tell, but we may have our own collaborative circle on our hands.
 Farrell notes that members tend to be in their late 20s to early 30s, but notes this may be more true for men than for women.
 Farrell believes collaborative circles tend to have a fixed time period of 10–15 years, after which members tend to grow apart for a variety of reasons, from new family responsibilities, growth and maturation beyond the group, or an irreconcilable buildup of interpersonal tension.
 For more on the interesting history of Bloomers, see this Atlantic article: https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2019/06/american-suffragists-bloomers-pants-history/591484/