What do we mean when we say that two creative people have “chemistry?” Why has the notion of the lone genius – an individual from whose mind great works of art spring forth, fully formed – dominated our understanding of the creative process for so long?
These questions are at the heart of Powers of Two, a timely meditation on the value of creative partnerships. With the advent of the internet and the collaborations we witness online every day, the idea of the lone genius as the greatest source of creativity is finally being exposed for the myth that it really is.
In an exploration of the history of successful creative collaborations, you’ll learn what the most celebrated partnerships have in common, and come closer to an understanding of what defines and inspires creative chemistry – and what causes its ultimate demise.
In this summary of Powers of Two by Joshua Wolf Shenk, you’ll also discover
- why competition and conflict are essential to a productive creative relationship;
- why giving up our individuality in a partnership can actually increase our self-confidence; and
- why creativity depends on a balance of solitude and engagement with others.
Table of Contents
- Creativity emerges from a balance of self-reflection and dialogue with others.
- The best creative relationships balance the similarities and differences of two people.
- As part of a creative pair, you must be present; and have confidence, trust and faith in your partner.
- The ritual is the foundation on which creative partners build their relationship.
- There are different types of creative pairs, and different ways that partners influence each other.
- It’s necessary to establish distance between partners for the relationship to run smoothly.
- Conflict and competition between partners are essential to the creative process.
- The same reason can account for both the beginning and end of a relationship.
- Even when a relationship ends, sometimes it can be hard to truly let go.
- About the author
Historians and the media usually give credit for humankind’s greatest achievements to lone geniuses working in isolation. These solitary giants are supposedly the ones who produce the most important art, music and inventions. Essayist Joshua Wolf Shenk challenges that notion. He cites many examples of successful pairings, including frequent mentions of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, that show the complexities that even supportive pairs can face. Lopsided relationships such as Emily Dickinson and her muses demonstrate that to some degree, everyone relies on someone else. Shenk’s insights can help you choose the right business or personal partner and improve your relationships. We recommend Shenk’s treatment to those who wish to dive into the dynamics of two-person partnerships. Hard-core Beatles fans will also enjoy his analysis.
- The prevailing “lone genius” theory of creativity and innovation is a fallacy.
- Even the most cloistered creators – like Thoreau – need collaborators.
- The most powerful creative unit is a pair.
- In the arts, science and technology, duos emerge. Even if one person receives primary attribution for the work, scratch the surface and you’ll find a powerful muse.
- A fine balance of similarity and difference exists between the best pairs.
- Pairs come in three main types – those who collaborate on shared work, those who collaborate but produce their own work, and the combo of a teacher and a student.
- Pairs complement each other. With a director leading a star, a rigid partner driving a creator or a doer supporting a dreamer, each person depends on the other.
- Pairs often disagree and argue. Conflict and tension drive their creativity.
- Most pairs need their space. They collaborate closely and separately, some across great distances, others in the same room.
- Working alone may be easier, but you could find that your best work will emerge after you open up, take a chance and combine your efforts with the right partner.
Creativity emerges from a balance of self-reflection and dialogue with others.
How do great composers and artists come up with their masterpieces? The common idea is that the most celebrated geniuses of our time work as loners, locking themselves away in their studios until their masterwork is complete.
This is the myth of the lone genius.
It derives from the Enlightenment era of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a time when human nature was generally understood to be solitary and self-contained.
At that time, the belief that an individual’s mind is the seat of creativity was a product of the political, economic, cultural and religious beliefs of everyday life. For instance, the notion that the world itself was created by a single, divine being led artists to consider their individuality as the fundamental driver of their creative force.
This idea continued into modern times – that is, until the advent of the internet.
To the same degree that the internet has changed our social and professional lives, it has also transformed our ideas about creativity, and overturned the myth of the lone genius.
The countless musical mash-ups, film parodies, collections of art or photography we view online every day have opened our eyes to the abundance of creativity that can result when two or more people collaborate or merely take inspiration from one another.
We now know that, in most cases, creativity comes not only from indulging in a long stretch of “alone time” but rather from a balance of self-reflection and social interaction.
To stimulate your creativity, you have to enter into some kind of creative exchange with another entity – whether another artist, a muse or even with your inner voice. The most important factor is that this “dialogue” is a balance of self-reflection (talking with your inner self) and interaction with others.
The Dalai Lama is an example of someone who excels at both being alone and engaging deeply with others. Every morning, he wakes up at 3:30 a.m. and meditates. Then, at sunrise, he begins receiving visitors and spends the remainder of his day captivated by the company of others.
This combination of solitude and social interaction enables him to lead a creative and engaged life.
The best creative relationships balance the similarities and differences of two people.
What brings people to begin a creative relationship in the first place?
People often come together because they have things in common. These similarities form a kind of familiar foundation, on which both people feel comfortable. Using this foundation, and provided there is enough personal chemistry, the pair can then build a relationship that elevates them above and beyond their capabilities as individuals.
But if you are a creative type, how do you meet creative partners?
These often life-changing meetings can happen in environments that seem commonplace, such as cafes, offices, parties or even weddings – what sociologist Michael Farrell calls magnet places. For example, South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker met at school, a classic magnet place.
Yet similarities alone aren’t enough to stimulate the development of a creative relationship.
All creative partnerships require at least a few fundamental differences between collaborators. While common ground is the soil from which a creative relationship can grow and blossom, differences between partners introduce an element of surprise and novelty in the creative process.
Indeed, a fruitful relationship doesn’t require a perfect harmony of ideas and personalities. Your most effective collaborator may be in fact a person who challenges you to leave your comfort zone, provoking you to see your ideas from a different point of view.
One of the most famous creative pairings of the last century – John Lennon and Paul McCartney – were in many ways an unlikely pair. While McCartney came from a loving family and had a solid musical education, Lennon had spent his childhood living with his aunt and experienced a life filled with torment and breakups.
These differences, however, were the engine of their collaborative creative force: Lennon learned much from McCartney’s musical proficiency and McCartney from Lennon’s daring. The result was an intense period of creativity, during which they co-wrote over 180 songs.
As part of a creative pair, you must be present; and have confidence, trust and faith in your partner.
One of the most famous and influential creative partnerships of the twentieth century was between dancer Suzanne Farrell and choreographer George Balanchine. Their relationship can teach us a lot about the creative process.
The interaction of all creative pairs travels through three initial stages: presence, confidence and trust. The final stage, however, that cements the creative relationship, however, is faith.
Presence is the foundation of authentic interaction. To be present with someone means to be truly aware of who they are and be willing to accept them into your “space.” Once both partners establish this presence, they can be honest about how they feel with each other – their weaknesses and strengths, joys and sorrows – and the creative process can begin in earnest.
After several gruelling rehearsals with Balanchine’s dance company, Farrell and Balanchine established presence with one another. Because Farrell had opened herself up emotionally to Balanchine, he was able to create choreography perfectly suited to her talents.
Confidence is the next stage. When partners are confident, they have an equal amount of respect for each other. This confidence can rest on shared (even mundane) qualities, such as reliability and punctuality.
Trust, in contrast to confidence, is more holistic: it means having the belief that the other person will defend and protect you and your ideas, no matter what. In this stage, the creative partners surrender themselves to each other, confident that they’re together on the “right path.”
When it came to ballet, Farrell let Balanchine be the sole judge of her capabilities. If he thought that she could perform a complex sequence of steps, she trusted his judgment and pushed herself, even if she first had doubts.
The very last stage that takes a creative relationship to its ultimate level is faith. Trust transforms into faith when the partners know instinctively that the boundaries between them have dissolved and that each partner can trust blindly the guidance of the other. This is the moment where the creative bond becomes unbreakable, and where the magic of collaboration finds its most fertile ground.
The ritual is the foundation on which creative partners build their relationship.
Creative relationships can involve partners making some pretty strange choices. Take artist Marina Abramovic and her partner Ulay, who chose to live together in a Citroën van for several years.
Behind their decision was the belief that spending their lives together in such a confined space would force them to take their relationship to a higher level.
This kind of process is known as the ritual, and it’s the basis of some of the most successful creative partnerships.
For pairs, the most basic ritual is the regular meeting, in which they leave their individual private spaces and create a shared environment.
In this space, the pair develops its own private language. Over time, each partner can even take on the speech patterns and body language of the other – a phenomenon that psychologists call “social contagion.”
For example, investor Warren Buffett and his partner Charlie Munger are often referred to as “Siamese twins.” They wear almost identical clothes, they walk and talk in the same manner and they each have a similar sparkle in their eyes.
At this point, you may wonder whether such close bonding requires each partner to give up their sense of self. If a person becomes so involved in a relationship, wouldn’t they lose a sense of their own individuality?
Though it may seem counterintuitive, in fact the opposite is true: the more of your individuality you surrender as part of the relationship ritual, the stronger you become as an individual.
As singer and poet Patti Smith wrote in her book Just Kids, addressing her creative relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, the more time the two spent together, the more and better they knew themselves as individuals.
In other words, as you give up more of your own privacy, you gain more self-confidence. As a result, your ideas and ambitions are encouraged to grow too, and you might find yourself doing the best work of your life.
There are different types of creative pairs, and different ways that partners influence each other.
All creative relationships are different. In some partnerships, only one is the “star,” or the spokesperson for the pair, while the other remains in the shadows. In other partnerships, however, like Lennon and McCartney’s, each member is equally famous and revered.
The star-shadow pairing is known as an asymmetrical partnership, where one partner “absorbs” the other. So, even though both play an equally crucial role in the relationship, only one partner gets the credit.
This often happens in teacher-student relationships. For example, Suzanne Farrell will be forever known as Balanchine’s dancer, even though she had a major influence on most of his choreographies.
An equal pairing is known as an overt partnership. In this variation, both partners have the same status in the production of their work and both share in the public spotlight.
But there’s another type of creative pairing, in which each partner has a separate public identity. This is known as a distinct partnership. This pairing doesn’t collaborate in the traditional way, but instead serves as an advisor to, and a muse for, the other.
Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, for example, never collaborated directly, but they did rely on each other for guidance and inspiration. Because of the strength of their distinct partnership, they individually produced great works, such as Smith’s poetic tribute to Mapplethorpe, The Coral Sea, and Mapplethorpe’s famous portrait for Smith’s album, Horses.
Within each of these relationship variations, there are different types of creative partners.
There’s the dreamer type, who has enormous strength of character and great ideas, but may also start things they can’t finish.
Then there’s the doer type. Doers are productive, efficient and reliable. However, they also struggle to be original and to initiate creative projects.
In many cases, creativity begins when dreamers and doers partner up. Though each type might struggle individually, together they complement each other perfectly and are able to accomplish great things.
It’s necessary to establish distance between partners for the relationship to run smoothly.
As we’ve seen, many great creative relationships bloom from an intense period of closeness and bonding. But it’s equally true that time spent apart is as important as time spent together.
Indeed, highly functional couples say that the secret to a good relationship is ensuring that both partners have time and space to themselves.
Of course, there’s no explicit guideline for the amount of space creative partners will need. It depends on their personalities, their goals and their lifestyles.
Some people need to shut themselves off from social interaction to be creative. This isn’t to suggest that they prefer isolation; they just need time and space to recharge.
This process is somewhat akin to meditation, as it involves removing yourself from outside influences to calm your mind and unleash your creativity.
However, beyond a certain point, distance isn’t good for creativity. To function well, creative people tend to need a mix of both autonomy and intimacy.
A good example of this is the highly innovative partnership between poets Jane Kenyon and Donald Hall. Kenyon and Hall lived together, but at the same time enjoyed what they called a “double solitude.” In effect, this meant that whenever they’d meet in the kitchen to have a cup of coffee, they wouldn’t say a word to each other, but they were aware of each other’s presence.
But how exactly do autonomy and intimacy serve creativity?
When we’re alone, we can access our unconscious minds. Many creative people have observed that they tend to be most creative when involved in a semi-automatic activity, like walking or swimming. These activities take a certain amount of conscious attention, but leave the unconscious part of their minds free to be used as a creative resource.
Psychologist Greg Feist believes that the most effective creative method is to separate the stages of generating ideas from the process of evaluating and elaborating on those ideas. In other words, first, work in solitude, and then, present your work to your partner and develop your ideas in collaboration.
Conflict and competition between partners are essential to the creative process.
Although a harmonious creative relationship may be pleasant, the fact is that a more competitive relationship tends to lead to better creative work.
Certainly competition motivates us to do a great job. It’s in our nature to strive to do better than our neighbors. This is no bad thing, as rivalry can motivate us to work harder and inspire us to improve ourselves. Lennon and McCartney were in constant competition with each other. So, when John would write a hit like “Strawberry Fields Forever,” Paul responded by writing a song like “Penny Lane.”
Sometimes the sense of competition can be so subtle that both partners are unaware of it. When novelist Sheila Heti was asked if she was in competition with her partner, painter and filmmaker Margaux Williamson, she responded that it was impossible since they worked in totally different fields.
But Heti also said that if Williamson had a more productive week than she had, she would immediately try to do a better job in her writing.
Naturally, the constant battle for power that such competition entails can bring conflict between partners.
But this conflict can be healthy: often, when two people are fighting for the upper hand, they’ll also inadvertently drive the creative process forward.
For example, in an attempt to be the more powerful team member, a partner can become tyrannical and make the other partner fearful. This turns that partner into a “subordinate” who will then work harder to satisfy the powerful partner.
Curiously, this process can still lead to good creative work.
One example of such a relationship is that between famous movie director Alfred Hitchcock and actress Tippi Hedren. While shooting The Birds, Hitchcock controlled Hedren’s every move. He dictated what clothes she could wear, her diet and which visitors she could see. The result was an incredible performance by Hedren, and a successful, popular film.
And although Hedren was traumatized by her experience, she admitted that she’d learned more in the three years it took to make The Birds than she could’ve learned in 50 years working with a less-controlling director.
The same reason can account for both the beginning and end of a relationship.
Though it’s a cliche, the saying “opposites attract” happens to be true. And this is why the things you admire about your partner are often also what bring about the end of the relationship.
Early on in a relationship, we are drawn toward a partner based on a certain quality or a certain feeling which we like and which inspires us. Yet, as time goes on, this quality may intensify, sometimes to the point of unbearableness.
In one study, sociologist Diane Felmlee asked several people why they began a relationship and why they ended it. Interestingly, some 30 percent of respondents gave essentially the same answer for both questions.
One person found his partner initially “sweet and sensitive,” but later “too nice.” Another thought her partner was “strong-willed” when she met him, but later “domineering.” Yet another was charmed by her partner’s “sense of humor,” and later annoyed because he made “too many jokes.”
Another reason that relationships come to an end is that success gets in the way.
Psychologists have found that people with money tend to isolate themselves, choosing to be selfish and free of dependents. Often, when too much emphasis is placed on money, we can lose touch with ourselves and with those around us.
Wanting to avoid falling into this well-known trap, comedian Dave Chappelle chose to put a stop to his career. And Chappelle had good reason to be concerned: the first season of Chappelle’s Show was the best-selling TV series on DVD ever.
After the second season, Chappelle’s creative partner, Neal Brennan, made a deal with Comedy Central to extend the show for two more seasons for an unprecedented $50 million.
However, after filming just a handful of episodes for the third season, Chappelle left the set and then the country, without telling even his closest friends and family.
In his defense, Chappelle later said that “success takes you where character cannot sustain you.”
Even when a relationship ends, sometimes it can be hard to truly let go.
Most people would like to think that a relationship can end in the same way as a theater play: once the curtain falls, the stage goes dark and everything is forgotten.
Unfortunately, such a clean ending is impossible.
Often relationships don’t end exactly when we want them to. Moreover, even when they do end, we can’t truly let go of them.
Take the example of Lennon and McCartney. Before The Beatles eventually split up in 1970, the duo had been going through a long period in which their relationship was incredibly strained.
Tensions within the pop group were making it increasingly difficult for the pair to collaborate well. But rather than separating and perhaps ending the relationship on good terms, they chose to plough ahead.
Eventually, the strain became too much to bear, and the partnership dissolved acrimoniously.
But the animosity didn’t end there: both Lennon and McCartney simply couldn’t let go of their relationship, and continued to compete with each other in their years as successful solo artists.
Tragically, for some people, the end of a relationship isn’t a new beginning; it really is the end.
After Vincent van Gogh shot himself in the stomach in 1890, his brother and partner, Theo, gradually went insane.
First he quit his job. Then he moved into a new apartment, spacious enough that he could display Vincent’s paintings, as in a museum. Ultimately, he became violent, was placed in an asylum and not soon afterward, died.
Even those partnerships that come to a less dramatic end can leave an indelible mark on the people involved.
Suzanne Farrell and George Balanchine worked together until Balanchine was too sick to continue. The connection between them was so profound that, after his death in April 1983, Farrell reported that she felt orphaned. In the following years, Farrell drifted away from dance, eventually cutting off all contact with the New York City Ballet.
The Lone Genius
Since the Enlightenment, the dominant narrative surrounding creativity has championed the lone genius. In reality, little of value comes from solo efforts. Most creativity occurs when people work in pairs. Even when a creator appears to produce a masterpiece alone, his or her work builds on a web of influences. Pairs stand at the core of this “network theory of human achievement.”
“The lone-genius idea has become our dominant view of creativity not because of its inherent truth – in fact, it neglects and obscures the social qualities of innovation – but because it makes for a good story.”
Teams of two tend to come together and develop relationships that span decades. Most follow a life cycle of six stages:
Dynamic pairs rarely come together by chance. Most meet through mutual friends or acquaintances, as did investors Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger. Some come from the same family – like Wilbur and Orville Wright.
“It turns out that, amid infinite potential complexity, things tend to organize repeatedly into pairs.”
Even those who meet randomly put themselves in the right path to meet compatible people. For example, clothing designer Valentino Garavani met his lifelong partner Giancarlo Giammetti on Rome’s Via Veneto, then a hub of fashion and design – a place for like-minded people to meet.
Creative pairs share interests, whether in art, fashion, science or music. Ideally, pairs combine complementary skills. Giammetti excelled in business. Valentino focused on design and public appearances. Even identical twins Bob and Mike Bryan, world-champion tennis doubles partners, play different styles and use opposite hands. Despite Paul McCartney and John Lennon having common roots in Ireland, sharing a love of music and being neighbors in Liverpool, England, they differed in strengths and personalities.
“Genius’ is a story made up to account for the broad and ultimately mysterious nature of creativity.”
Often, innovations in science, medicine and other fields occur when outsiders join established, tight-knit teams. The outsiders know the field and their fresh viewpoints lead to breakthroughs. By adding McCartney to his fledgling band, Lennon gained the new skills, perspectives and ways of thinking he needed to propel the struggling Quarrymen into the powerhouse Beatles.
“Creative individuals have often been mistaken for hermits, when the clearer picture would show skillful and productive relationships engaged from a deliberate solitude.”
Most successful pairs move from a dynamic first meeting to joint creative pursuits. If their trust and confidence grows, a mutual faith develops. For instance, New York City Ballet choreographer George Balanchine built an all-encompassing relationship with dancer Suzanne Farrell because they had faith in each other’s abilities and shared a mutual loyalty.
Once a pair joins, the flow between them leads to a convergence of thoughts and minds. The relationship still thrives on praise and criticism, accord and discord, but the bonds grow stronger. Private rituals emerge, even secret languages only the duo understands. Pairs close ranks, cutting off other people and even the rest of the world. Pairs can “finish each other’s sentences” and they often refer to themselves as “we.”
“The best climate for progress is a mix of deference and defiance. Corporate teams do well with a clear mission and a deviant who asks uncomfortable questions.”
Associations don’t all look the same. “Overt” relationships, like the one Lennon and McCartney shared, display a near-single entity to the world. In their heyday, few except the two musicians themselves knew who created what, who took the lead, or who was entirely or mostly responsible for which hit songs. Equal partnerships tend to share credit for a body of work rather than components of it. For Lennon and McCartney, the agreement was explicit; both names would go on all the music and they would share profits equally regardless of who wrote a song. In a “distinct” relationship, equal partners collaborate but produce no common or co-created work. C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien relied on each other for praise and criticism – each read the other’s writing and gave feedback – but they never produced co-credited work.
“Every pair has its own power dance, a choreography of thrusts and parries, of dips and turns, that shapes its way of moving across life’s stage.”
“Asymmetrical” relationships, like that between choreographer Balanchine and dancer Farrell, feature a teacher and a pupil, the former clearly dominant over the latter. Pairs might mix elements of the three types over the span of a long relationship, even going solo (distinct) for a period before rejoining forces later.
Three archetypes occur regularly among history’s most famous and productive pairs:
- “The Star and the Director” – Mohandas Gandhi (star) and his shadow, Mahadev Desai (director), played equally vital but different roles in securing India’s freedom from the British. Similarly, Martin Luther King was the front man in the civil rights movement while his partner, Ralph Abernathy, directed operations from behind the scenes. Brothers Vincent and Theo Van Gogh shared a similar partnership. Gandhi, King and Vincent Van Gogh are the more famous, taking center stage while their obscure partners took care of business, managed the brand and, often, handled the money. Creative pairs develop a song, speech or sermon together – or heavily influence art in the case of Theo Van Gogh – but only the known member of the pair gets glory and fame.
- “The Liquid and the Container” – Successful pairs play off each other’s strengths and needs. The creative person, who might resent the rigidity, also knows that discipline is necessary. Uncontained creativity spills and spreads everywhere, growing thinner until it evaporates. It seeks a container. Pablo Picasso, for example, depended on his various mistresses to talk him out of bed each morning, and that often took hours. The highly disciplined and structure-oriented partner – the container – needs the creator’s content to feel fulfilled.
- “The Dreamer and the Doer” – Thomas Edison famously said that genius is “one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” But the perspiration wasn’t his; it came from his team. Edison dreamed; his team at Menlo Park did the work. Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the comedy team behind TV’s South Park series, work the same way. Parker dreams up stories and situations. Stone turns those dreams into reality by arranging the thousands of moving parts of each production, shielding Parker to visualize and create.
“At the same time that they move toward each other, the two people in a pair leave behind the rest of the world.”
In most pairs, one person takes more risks because the other lends support. John Lennon tried new things, went on spiritual tangents, took copious amounts of drugs and made his way through bouts of depression because he knew McCartney would keep things on track. Lennon lacked McCartney’s business discipline, but he matched McCartney’s work ethic when it came to music. Creative pairs often switch roles as well. Stone plays the doer to Parker’s creativity most of the time, but they shift roles during the creative process.
“The opposite of love is not hate; it’s indifference…Pairs may remain nominally together but only as performers or business partners – they may cease to create without any kind of explicit split.”
Even reclusive artists and thinkers such as Henry David Thoreau leave their seclusion to seek the stimulus of companionship. Thoreau frequently left Walden Pond to visit nearby collaborators, including Ralph Waldo Emerson. After Emerson filled his head with ideas, Thoreau could retreat into seclusion and work until he needed another refill. History reveals few truly independent innovators or creators.
Even the most tightly bound creative pairs need both closeness and distance from each other to function. Spouses Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre worked at separate tables and on different projects in the same house. Emily Dickinson maintained her distance from everyone, including those who inspired her. Dickinson engaged by writing thousands of letters, especially to her most important muse, her sister-in-law, who lived next door but whom she rarely saw.
“Even in the age of laptops and smartphones, the best work still seems to emerge from person-to-person contact.”
Elton John and Bernie Taupin started working together in close proximity, sharing a small apartment in London. Today, they collaborate effectively with thousands of miles between them. Economists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky worked effectively side by side. They launched the field of behavioral economics. When Kahneman took a post at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver while Tversky taught at Stanford, their collaboration ceased.
“John and Paul are sui generis, but this is still a common story: you leave the guy who makes you miserable – but no one ever again makes you so great.”
Periods of close physical collaboration, mixed with breaks, produced Lennon and McCartney’s best work. For many pairs, absence and separation ultimately create a better union and better art, even at the expense of a permanently damaged bond. Bruce Springsteen dissolved his E Street Band, severing his longtime partnership with Clarence Clemons. This devastated Clemons and ruptured the relationship forever. But when the band reunited 10 years later, each man produced some of his best work.
5. “The Infinite Game”
Pairs of rivals can drive each other to peak performance as powerfully as “collaborative” team partners. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird could not have hit legendary basketball status without their mutual competition. Two co-creators of modern art, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, provided the intense competition each needed to create his masterpieces.
“Creativity is what happens when the dreamer meets the doer.”
Collaborative pairs also share the traits of rivals. McCartney and Lennon drove each other to work harder, though they gained equally from one another’s efforts. Where pairs collaborate, almost always one is a boss and the other a subordinate. This dynamic usually forms within minutes of their meeting. The degree of leading and following varies. Significant give-and-take and role reversals characterize the best relationships, as does disagreement. As songwriter Leonard Cohen said, conflict “lets the light in.”
“Sometimes the best aids to our work are people who knock us most off balance.”
James Watson and Francis Crick, the Cambridge University scientists credited with discovering DNA, disagreed regularly and dismissed each other’s ideas. Though both were powerful alpha males, Crick was the pair’s acknowledged leader. The two argued and fought continuously, allowing them to make their discovery ahead of a better-positioned pair of scientists. That dueling pair, Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin, disliked each other so much that they literally never spoke. Crick and Watson’s conflict sparked creativity, allowing them to combine into something greater than their individual parts. Wilkins and Franklin operated only as individuals.
“In relationships, when times are bad, people say, ‘We have a fundamental problem. It’s you’.”
Power dynamics between a pair can result in one controlling the other so that no conflict materializes. Movie director Alfred Hitchcock dominated his film’s leading ladies. He made great movies while forcing Oscar-level performances from his actresses. The relationships never lasted.
Lennon and McCartney led the Beatles in different ways. Lennon was the clear leader, but McCartney made the business decisions with manager Brian Epstein. Lennon had to feel like the boss and would re-establish his authority whenever he felt it necessary. For example, in 1964, Lennon abruptly decided that all Beatles songs had to bear the credit “Lennon-McCartney,” including those McCartney wrote alone and would write in the future.
All pairs and partnerships must end. Often, the creative endeavor that brought them together drives them apart. Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin were a hugely popular comedy duo. But their routines irritated Martin. Lewis told Martin they had to stay together because of the love between them. Martin replied that when he looked at Lewis, he saw only dollar signs.
Success itself drives pairs apart. Comedian Dave Chappelle and his partner, producer and co-creator Neal Brennan, had one of the hottest shows on television between 2003 and 2004. When the time came to negotiate a new contract, Chappelle went solo and forced Brennan to do the same. Despite signing a $50 million contract, Chappelle vanished into obscurity, as has Brennan.
Lennon and McCartney split over a complicated sequence of events. In part, Lennon couldn’t tolerate McCartney’s love of Linda Eastman. Not because of Eastman herself, but because of Lennon’s need to come first and remain in charge. With Eastman on the scene, Lennon rushed headlong into the arms of Yoko Ono. He gave great weight to her advice, causing fissures in the band. Lennon chose Allen Klein to manage the band. By refusing to sign with Klein – correctly believing him untrustworthy – McCartney broke up the Beatles. The McCartney-Lennon partnership ended in 1970. Despite clear intentions to collaborate again, the two never did. Lennon and McCartney remain part of each other, joined through their work just as divorced parents are linked through their children.
The key message in this book:
For centuries we have believed that creativity comes exclusively to artists who work in solitude and isolation. But behind every artistic creation exists a creative relationship. The myth of the lone genius is demolished by the power of two, because to create something meaningful there must be an exchange of ideas or emotions between two creative minds.
Essayist Joshua Wolf Shenk is writer-in-residence at the University of Nevada Las Vegas.
“Powers of Two” is a thought-provoking and insightful exploration of the concept of collaboration and its role in driving innovation and creativity. Joshua Wolf Shenkevin, a renowned author and consultant, delves into the history of groundbreaking partnerships and examines the common factors that have led to their success. Through a combination of engaging anecdotes, historical examples, and scientific research, Shenkevin convincingly argues that the most influential ideas and innovations often arise from the collaboration of two individuals with complementary perspectives and skills.
The book is divided into four parts, each of which tackles a different aspect of the collaboration process. Shenkevin begins by examining the origins of collaboration, from the early days of partnerships in the fields of science and art to the present day. He then delves into the psychology of collaboration, exploring the ways in which two individuals can work together to overcome their individual biases and create something greater than the sum of their parts.
The second part of the book focuses on the specific skills and strategies required for successful collaboration, including active listening, open communication, and a willingness to compromise. Shenkevin also explores the role of trust in collaboration, arguing that trust is essential for creating a partnership that is both productive and enduring.
The book’s third part is dedicated to the various forms of collaboration, from partnerships between colleagues and friends to those between organizations and communities. Shenkevin provides numerous examples of successful collaborations, including the partnership between Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak at Apple and the collaborative efforts of the Wright brothers in the early days of aviation.
Finally, Shenkevin turns his attention to the challenges of collaboration, including the potential for conflict, the importance of managing ego, and the need for ongoing communication and negotiation. He also provides practical advice for overcoming these challenges, including the use of conflict resolution techniques and the importance of setting clear goals and expectations.
Strengths and Weaknesses:
The strengths of “Powers of Two” lie in its comprehensive approach to collaboration and its ability to provide valuable insights into the complex dynamics of partnership. Shenkevin’s writing is engaging and accessible, and his use of real-world examples makes the concepts he presents feel both relevant and relatable. The book is also well-researched and well-referenced, with a wealth of sources cited throughout.
However, some readers may find the book’s focus on collaboration to be overly broad, and the lack of a clear structure or central thesis may make it difficult to follow at times. Additionally, some of the scientific research and historical anecdotes may be unfamiliar to readers who are not already familiar with the topic.
Overall, “Powers of Two” is a thought-provoking and insightful exploration of the concept of collaboration and its role in driving innovation and creativity. Joshua Wolf Shenkevin’s writing is engaging and accessible, and his use of real-world examples makes the concepts he presents feel both relevant and relatable. While some readers may find the book’s focus on collaboration to be overly broad, its comprehensive approach and wealth of valuable insights make it a valuable resource for anyone interested in the subject.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
I highly recommend “Powers of Two” to anyone interested in the topic of collaboration and innovation. Whether you are a business leader, artist, or simply someone looking to improve your collaborative skills, this book has valuable insights and practical advice that can help you achieve your goals.