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James Coplien

The Myth of Individual Invention

Agile Careers




The Swarming essay drew the interest and comments of many readers. Most of the retorts evoked deeply held fears of one’s individualism being threatened. Society has taught us that survival owes to our salary at our job, and that our job owes to our individual performance. Society has reinforced those notions with accolades of individual accomplishment: patents, promotions, and promises of favor. Culture needs and has always needed such rituals, and we shouldn’t minimize their contribution. It is, however, important to know that they work differently in different cultures, and that there is a much, much bigger picture.


If one looks beyond the cultural trappings of recognition, it has long been known that it is society, and not individuals, who invent. The anthropologist Kroeber, in his book Anthropology (1923, Harcourt, Brace and World), tells us that “as long as the matter [of the nature of genius] is viewed simply as one of persons, it remains rather meaningless.” Many people invent, but “[o]nly a fraction are ever found out, or allowed the rank by history.” He lists inventions discovered by multiple inventors thousands of miles apart within months of each other: the telephone, telescope, steamboat, phonograph, natural selection, and dozens more. How can an individual in good conscience claim ownership of a novel idea?


You can argue that even if this is true, that society demands recognition of accomplishment on the Pavlovian basis that people do what they are rewarded for. Rewards are important as cultural artefacts; but we know from Edward Deci’s Why We Do What We Do, from Daniel Pink’s book Drive: The Truth about What Motivates Us, and dozens of other sources, it’s all about the intrinsic sense of accomplishment than any extrinsic motivator.


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