On small work groups

As steel sharpeneth steel, so one man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend.

– Proverbs 27:17

There’s a common romantic image of the lone genius working in obscurity before throwing a brilliant masterpiece into the world. The only problem is, this is almost never the way genius actually works. Almost anyone who’s done great work had been active and well-regarded even before their breakout works. Einstein – usually held out as an example of the lone genius type – was fully engaged with the physics community of his day, corresponding with professors across the continent, even while he was doing his day job at the patent office.

But even more specifically, many prominent people did their great early work in the company of a small group of local friends working in the same field. Einstein had his Olympia Academy, CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien had their Inklings, Benjamin Franklin, a terrific networker, had his Junto in Philadelphia and seeded other small clubs wherever he went. In a more modern incarnation, the Stanford Review, an undergraduate literary magazine, and the later PayPal Mafia were critical influences on some of the great entrepreneurs of our times. This pattern is common enough to require explanation: what were these groups like, and what did they do for the people who went through them?

When Benjamin Franklin arrived in Philadelphia as an apprentice printer, he organized a group of his friends into a club they called the Junto. The members were mostly young tradesmen, and in typical Franklin fashion he set up the club explicitly as a self-improvement and mutual-aid club. Members presented essays they wrote, debated public issues, and discussed a set of self-improvement topics. These topics make for interesting anthropology:

  • Has any citizen in your knowledge failed in his business lately, and what have you heard of the cause?
  • Have you lately heard of any citizen’s thriving well, and by what means?
  • Do you know of any fellow citizen, who has lately done a worthy action, deserving praise and imitation? or who has committed an error proper for us to be warned against and avoid?
  • What unhappy effects of intemperance have you lately observed or heard? of imprudence? of passion? or of any other vice or folly?
  • Do you know of any deserving young beginner lately set up, whom it lies in the power of the Junto any way to encourage?

Unromantic it might seem, but the Junto ended up accomplishing many of the feats we now attribute to Franklin alone. For example, members of the Junto contributed to create the first American lending library, a volunteer fire company, and the Pennsylvania Hospital. It also supported him as he entered the world of politics in his later life. But it also proved crucial in sharpening the skills of a generation of middle-class tradesmen in Pennsylvania, who would take over from the landed gentry as the driving force in the new America.

A rather different sort of small group was the Inklings. This group was started by CS Lewis at Oxford, and included JRR Tolkien, Charles Williams, and others. Unlike the Junto, it had no formal structure, but was drawn from a group of writers that explored similar themes in their writing – myth-making, Christianity, and literature. Rather than a fixed program, they took up projects – Tolkien taught the group how to read Icelandic sagas in the original Old Icelandic, and the Inklings frequently read excerpts from their own writing projects – such as Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. But it wasn’t all work; one of their biweekly meetings was in a local pub, and they often took long rambling walks around the English countryside, talking as they went.

Tolkien later wrote:

The unpayable debt that I owe to [Lewis] was not ‘influence’ as it is ordinarily understood, but sheer encouragement. He was for long my only audience. Only from him did I ever get the idea that my ‘stuff’ could be more than a private hobby. But for his interest and unceasing eagerness for more I should never have brought The L. of the R. to a conclusion.

Short of being a fly on the wall in these small groups, it’s hard to say exactly what went on in each specific case. But there are some obvious ways in which these informal groups can help their members grow in ways that other institutions couldn’t.

The first is that these groups are not drawn from random school friends. They are usually composed of people roughly in the same field. In Franklin’s case, they were all tradesmen who wanted to improve their language skills and encourage one another in developing bourgeois virtues. In the case of the Inklings, it was educated writers who were fascinated by a similar set of ideas. These groups were all working on the frontier – the place where the signposts of grades, promotions, and critical reviews could no longer guide them. Out there, productivity can be perceived only as an essentially subjective sense of taste. And so one important service they provided was a sense of judgment: was this latest piece of work something promising, or a waste of time? When Tolkien asked whether his invented mythology worked in Lord of the Rings (answer: yes) or Ralph asked Franklin whether his poetry was any good (answer: no), they were getting feedback from some of the only people in the world qualified to have an opinion on their work.

At the same time, it’s important to note that these groups were not day jobs. They may have critiqued one another’s work with brutal honesty, they may have exerted peer pressure, but they had no power to hire or fire. Why was this important? Because “hard power” and “soft power” work very differently in influencing creative work. Mutual encouragement and criticism could give strong feedback, but it doesn’t induce learned helplessness. When Tolkien criticized the random assortment of mythological creatures in The Chronicles of Narnia, for instance, it didn’t discourage Lewis from continuing on, ultimately producing more profound works later in the series. But if the boss says something is a bad idea, not only had you better not work on it on company time, it has a way of inexorably changing your own priorities. Only the strongest willed would continue working on something like that as a side project, and many of them would end up as temperamental rebels wasting all their energies fighting the system in various ways.

If your choice of associates will have a huge impact on your work, how do you bottle some of this magic for yourself? A few principles seem clear. One is simply to cast a broad net. As the popular conception of the “10x engineer” indicates, people vary hugely in their ability to do creative work, and in the amount they are able to contribute to your development. And they’re not necessarily concentrated in the most prestigious places you might expect. Certainly environments that filter for intelligence, such as colleges or top-level jobs, will likely be enriched in interesting people. But simply looking for the most prestigious people will usually miss the mark. The key trait of the people in these groups is that they’re doers, not ladder-climbers, and they can often look quite shabby if you’re not attuned to the wavelength of quality work. If you were a social climber in Philadelphia, you’d want to hobnob with the gentry, not with Franklin’s band of scrappy tradesmen. And if you were in prewar Oxford, the junior professors Lewis and Tolkien would have a certain amount of prestige, sure, but they were still peripheral to the action even within in the English department of their college. So a young person looking for such a group might indeed want to go to Harvard, but once there, look more at the Harvard Drone Club and less for future Rhodes Scholars.

But perhaps in the end there is no particular secret. Great doers are attracted to other men of deeds, each according to his own taste, like moths to a candle. They fall to talking. And among such men of course, the talk will inevitably involve the work that is their passion in life. And as Lewis said, friendship is born – at that moment when one man says to another – “What? You too? I thought I was the only one.”