Individuals and Groups

SNAP OUT OF IT Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6| Part 7

“Becoming a part of a movement
doesn’t help anybody think clearly.”
Sam Harris

“I think, tribalism is a mental prison…
and pride of identity coupled with arrogance is one
of the leading factors that limit one’s ability to abandon it.”
Duop Chak Wuol

Hey, I’ve got a great idea for a t-shirt!

Let’s all be different—
in the same way!

Sounds good, right? Or is there something just a little creepy about it?

The Land of We All

This may seem obvious, but it needs to be stated.

Only an individual person can think.

Not committees. Not corporations. Not any kind of group. Only individual persons.

Many individuals may hold the same thought. Or many variations of the same thought.

But thinking is individual.

Mobs don’t think. They feel. They feel strongly. They feel so strongly that individuals in a mob will engage in emotionally charged and destructive behavior that they would never engage in as individuals. Because the emotions can carry you away from your thoughts.

Sad to say, there are people, influencers, who strive to have you give up your individuality, your willingness to think as an individual, in favor of the mob. Even as they encourage you to be an individual.

Another important distinction is that, among human activity, some things can only be accomplished by individuals, and other things can only be accomplished by groups.

They do not overlap.

Only an individual can play a violin.

Only a group can invade Normandy.

And even though the latter was big and made the news, while the former is small and often unremarked, what individuals do, what they create, is much more remarkable.

Individuals try and fail and try again. Individuals are the true innovators. Not committees.

“Learn to fail with pride—and do so
fast and cleanly. Maximize trial and error—
by mastering the error part.”
Nassim Nicholas Taleb

The great inventor, Thomas Edison, ended his life with 2,332 patents worldwide. You probably know that he invented the incandescent light bulb. (Yes, he did. Others improved upon it, but he did invent it.)

You may have forgotten some of his other inventions:

— The phonograph record

— The motion picture camera

— The carbon microphone, used in telephones until 1980

— A system for electric power distribution

— The fluoroscope

When asked about his failures in inventing a working light bulb, Edison reportedly answered, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that did not work.”

In other words, his failures were a form of success.

So how did Edison do it? How did he become one of the most prolific inventors in history? In a word, the willingness to think as an individual despite what others said was impossible. He had the original thinker’s attitude.

Here are some of Thomas Edison’s critical quotes:

Genius is one percent inspiration,
ninety-nine percent perspiration.

If we did all the things we are capable of doing,
we would literally astound ourselves.

Opportunity is missed by most people because
it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.

Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize
how close they were to success when they gave up.

I find out what the world needs.
Then, I go ahead and invent it.

Hell, there are no rules here—
we’re trying to accomplish something.

Edison had a rare quality—resilience.

Substances like rubber balls have resilience, the ability to spring back into its original shape.

Humans who are resilient have a strong capacity to recover quickly from difficulties, or in Edison’s case, from failures.

Edison simply did not recognize failure. And this is how the innovators at my Silicon Valley company thought. Fail faster means recognizing that when you are innovating, creating something new that’s never been done before, it is a natural fact that you have to move through a number of “failures” to get to success.

Failures are the norm for successful people.

They do not see failures as stumbling blocks.
They see failures as stepping stones.

Unfortunately, groups of people are rarely creative. They often look at creative individuals, people who do not fit into their group, and dismiss their innovative ideas. Here are three classic examples:

Of Edison’s light bulb, the British Parliamentary Committee in 1878 stated publicly, “… good enough for our transatlantic friends… but unworthy of the attention of practical or scientific men.”

Of the newly invented automobile, the Literary Digest stated in 1899, “The ordinary ‘horseless carriage’ is at present a luxury for the wealthy; and although its price will probably fall in the future, it will never, of course, come into as common use as the bicycle.”

Of the Microchip, an IBM engineer, Advanced Computing Systems Division in 1968 said, “But what… is it good for?”

Apple computer happened to see what it was good for and started the personal computer revolution, which IBM missed out on.

Actor/Director Peter Ustinov once said, “If the world should blow itself up, the last audible voice would be that of an expert saying it can’t be done.”

Even though teams of people had to make these things happen, the innovation was the individual thinking of one creative mind.

Groups may make things happen. But individuals are the driving force behind what groups do.

Another odd thing to think about: Many people often claim that a group needs to be something or think something.

Take this statement: We must teach children to think.

It seems like an obvious statement of fact. But is it? Especially if we already agree that a group can’t think.

If I am asked to teach children to think, how would I go about it? In the Land of We All, I have a sense that to try to teach children to think, I will fail.

If thinking is an individual activity, how can I know how to teach a group to think? Can I mistakenly think I am teaching children to think if I am only working with them as a group and not as individual persons?

I suspect that I can only teach a child to think. One on one. Singularly.

And what if my goal is to ensure compliant children who go along with the herd and don’t trouble us with thinking as individuals? I will make sure they are put into large classrooms and charge the teacher with teaching them as a group how to think. Knowing that at the end of the day, teaching how to think will devolve into teaching how to feel.

Because that’s what groups do.

Let’s all be different—
in the same way!

A mechanical engineer, an electrical engineer, and a civil engineer are sitting in a bar around drinking their beers.

The mechanical engineer, who has been quiet and deep in thought, says, “You know, God must have been a mechanical engineer. The body is a mechanical marvel with its own brand of levers and pulleys and vises. It’s incredible what mechanical things it can do that we can’t duplicate.”

The electrical engineer shakes his head and says, “No, God was clearly an electrical engineer. Look at the central nervous system, the central cortex, the brain, this fabulous communications system. It is an electrical marvel. God was definitely an electrical engineer.”

The civil engineer laughs and responds, “You are both wrong. God was undoubtedly a civil engineer. I mean, who else would put a waste disposal system through a popular recreation area?”

It is your duty to become an individual before deciding which groups you need to join.

And this is one of the hardest things to become. Willing to acquire the abilities to teach yourself, think for yourself, restrain your feelings, exercise thought over emotions.


Because the easiest way for others to control you is through powerful emotions.

Let’s all be different—
in the same way!

Is there anyone around you who touts individuality but squashes it when it actually occurs?

Do you know people who preach tolerance while trying to shut down others?

If you want to risk putting this to the test, if you want to find out who your real friends are, the ones who will tolerate differences of opinion and listen to you, pick an unpopular opinion, especially a political opinion. Then ask them a question like:

Is it possible that [insert controversial person’s name here] could be right about that?

This is probably the quickest way to see if the people you hang out with are as tolerant as they say.

There is something called The Mirror of Life. Psychologists call this projection. What you hate in others is something you have in yourself.

How many people do you know who rail against racism, and then assume people of a certain race cannot do it on their own, that they can only get ahead with government help?

Think about that.

SNAP OUT OF IT Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6| Part 7

3 thoughts on “Individuals and Groups

  1. Pingback: Colonialism and Home Rule | Mark Andre Alexander

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  3. Pingback: Afterword | Mark Andre Alexander

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