Are You Soloist Material? (I Hate People, Part 2)


Authors Jonathan Littman and Marc Hershon have written a cynical book on why working on teams is bad for the company and bad for your career: I Hate People: Kick loose from the overbearing and underhanded jerks at work and get what you want out of your job. Hershon is a comedy writer, so the cynical tone makes for an entertaining read. I have outlined the reasons working in teams is actually not the most productive way to work in a previous post. The solution, the authors posit, is to become a soloist. If you’re lucky (and very good at what you do), the authors say, you’ll be able to distance yourself from all the time-sucking meetings and mind-numbing office protocol and simply work on interesting projects – alone, or with a small, talented group of people you don’t hate.

You’ll find, by definition, more soloists in creative professions, where innovation and imagination matter, but other types of workers can also carve out soloist roles. The benefits of being a soloist are many. First, they work on projects that matter. Having proved their value by getting results, they are often assigned to more interesting and complex projects. If they are valuable enough, they can negotiate to eliminate the distractions, bureaucracy, and meetings that slow them down and block progress.

Soloists get to choose their own teams (the authors call them “ensembles.”)  Sometimes, the team finds them; like-minded people with a special skill set will gravitate toward each other, and their work and ideas may overlap. A gifted soloist may be able to request specific assets from within the company (human or technical) to get the job done.

But becoming a soloist won’t make you popular; in fact, you may find that you’re envied – and hated – by workers still shackled to the system. You have to be tough and stay at the top of your game to thrive as a soloist in a traditional corporate environment. Here are a few of Littman and Hershon’s Soloist Principles:

  • Separation from the pack is not rejection of the pack
  • Achievement won’t always make me popular
  • Creativity doesn’t fit on a spreadsheet
  • Genius does not punch a clock

It takes resolve to carve out a soloist niche within the company; some choose to take their creativity and move on to a company whose culture is more suited to the concept. Ultimately, many soloists do go on to join or start up new ventures – a natural outcome of their entrepreneurial spirit.

If all this sounds like your idea of nirvana, the authors offer some times for starting a soloist culture within your company. Studies show that when the average office worker gets interrupted, it takes between five and 15 minutes to re-focus on the primary task. Try setting aside 10 or 15-minute intervals where no one is allowed to interrupt you. Focus on high value creative work or strategic planning that you never find time for during the daily grind. Eventually, you’ll be creating enough value during your no interruptions sessions that people will begin to notice. Maybe they’ll imitate you. You might become a disruptive force for soloist culture in your company.

Or you will be crushed like a bug. People, after all, are people.

“Oh, you hate your job? Why didn’t you say so? There’s a support group for that. It’s called EVERYBODY, and they meet at the bar.”

— Drew Carey

5 thoughts on “Are You Soloist Material? (I Hate People, Part 2)

  1. […] The answer for some of us, the authors claim, is to give up teamwork and become soloists. It’s a term they coined from orchestras; soloists are more gifted played to not only get to perform alone during the concert, but have a responsibility to lead and inspire the other players in their sections. If you’re lucky, the authors say, you’ll be able to distance yourself from all the time-sucking meetings and mind-numbing office protocol and simply work on interesting projects – alone, or with a small, talented group of people you don’t hate. Skunkworks, one my favorite cool business terms, is used to describe a group within an organization that is given a high degree of autonomy and unhampered by bureaucracy, tasked with working on advanced or secret projects. Sound good to you? Read about how to become a successful soloist in the next post. […]

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  2. I say as much as they let you, do whatever it is your passionate about–whatever–as long as it’s legal, I guess–and somehow make it fit into your job description. I love writing and drawing, so I’m making a funny and witty department newsletter, or I want to learn coding, so how bout a new department website? And as much as possible, do not accept tasks assigned to you, at least as is, but spin them into your own thing. It’s so freeing to feel like yourself, which rarely happens at work. But maybe we can make it happen as long as we have to work there.

    As for teams, form them naturally. If you’re unnaturally stuck with a team, try to get out of it as naturally as possible. Thanks.

    BTW: I have a cartoon that pokes fun at teams: http://workplacemonsters.wordpress.com/2013/08/25/meet-your-new-team/

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    1. I agree – your approach of doing what you love (within the constraints of your jobs description, of course.) Sounds like you have a healthy relationship with your work.

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  3. […] perform in an office environment in complete isolation; we need other people. Even if you’re a soloist in your actual job duties, you’ll eventually need IT support, payroll questions answered, or your […]

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  4. […] Expert Ladder. There will always be workers who prefer the soloist path. They enjoy the work for its own sake, and love the work of  learning and “sharpening […]

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