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Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs

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A revelatory synthesis of cultural history and social psychology that shows how one-to-one collaboration drives creative success
Weaving the lives of scores of creative duos—from John Lennon and Paul McCartney to Marie and Pierre Curie to Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak—Joshua Wolf Shenk identifies the core qualities of that dizzying experience we call "chemistry." Revealing the six essential stages through which creative intimacy unfolds, ...

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Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs

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A revelatory synthesis of cultural history and social psychology that shows how one-to-one collaboration drives creative success
Weaving the lives of scores of creative duos—from John Lennon and Paul McCartney to Marie and Pierre Curie to Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak—Joshua Wolf Shenk identifies the core qualities of that dizzying experience we call "chemistry." Revealing the six essential stages through which creative intimacy unfolds, Shenk draws on new scientific research and builds an argument for the social foundations of creativity—and the pair as its primary embodiment. Along the way, he reveals how pairs begin to talk, think, and even look like each other; how the most successful ones thrive on conflict; and why some pairs flame out while others endure.
When it comes to shaping the culture, Shenk argues, two is the magic number, not just because of the dyads behind everything from South Park to the American Civil Rights movement to Starry Night, but because of the nature of creative thinking. Even when we're alone, we are in a sense "collaborating" with a voice inside our head. At once intuitive and surprising, Powers of Two will change the way we think about innovation.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Sarah Lewis
…a rare glimpse into the private realms…of paired figures from the present and the past…A natural storyteller, Shenk includes intriguing details in his depictions of figures we might assume we already know well…Powers of Two is so thorough it could be the textbook for a course on creative pairs…Shenk's language, when he steps away from his engrossing narratives, veers toward the academic, yet it's precisely this analytical sensibility that distinguishes his book from others that discuss creative couples…
Publishers Weekly
In this intriguing yet uneven study, Shenk (Lincoln’s Melancholy) explores the nature of creativity as defined and manifested through numerous pairings, ranging from true partnerships like John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s to rivalries between competitors such as Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. Shenk looks at how such duos nudge one another toward greatness, provide the missing ingredient in a winning formula, add a spark of inspiration, and so on. He looks at scientific teams (James D. Watson and Francis Crick), artistic pairs (Theo and Vincent van Gogh), business partnerships (Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger), and familial rivalries (the sisters who wrote the Ask Ann Landers and Dear Abby columns). Each category can further broken down into six stages—meeting, confluence, archetypes, distance, the infinite game, and interruption—to show how such pairs need not be limited by proximity, friendship, or even cooperation. One of the most telling stories is the rivalry between basketball legends Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, who never even dared to relax their tension lest it impact their performances. While the narrative is somewhat disjointed, leaping from one pair to the next with dizzying speed, the material remains interesting, even eye-opening, illuminating a complicated subject. Agent: Betsy Lerner, Dunow, Carlson & Lerner Literary Agency. (Aug.)
From the Publisher
"Powers of Two is such a brilliant, compelling book, it's hard to imagine that Shenk left any part of himself behind in the writing of it. Or maybe, as he posits, his separateness suffered while his book gained from the merger with his adored editor: the sacrifice of self that's necessary to achieve successful creative coupledom." 
Chicago Tribune

"We sometimes think of creativity as coming from brilliant loners. In fact, it more often happens when bright people pair up and complement each other. Shenk’s fascinating book shows how to spark the power of this phenomenon."
Walter Isaacson "When I spoke with John Lennon in 1980—the final in-depth interview of his life—he described writing many songs 'eyeball to eyeball' with Paul McCartney. Powers of Two conveys the intimacy and complexity of their collaboration—and collaboration in general—with brilliant clarity."
—David Sheff,
author of All We Are Saying: The Last Major Interview with John Lennon and Yoko Ono

"In this surprising, compelling, deeply felt book, Joshua Wolf Shenk banishes the idea of solitary genius by demonstrating that our richest art and science come from collaboration: we need one another not only for love, but also for thinking and imagining and growing and being."
Andrew Solomon

"All future accounts of artistry and innovation will be enriched by the treasures Joshua Wolf Shenk has uncovered in the creativity of pairs. "
Lewis Hyde , author of The Gift

"Powers of Two is a dramatic, often delightful demonstration of a truth we usually ignore: great accomplishments are rarely the work of a single person. If you aspire to be creative, the most important step might be finding a trusted partner who can support your strengths and offset your weaknesses."
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi , author of Flow

"This is a book about magic; about the Beatles; about the chemistry between people; about neuroscience; and about the buddy system; it examines love and hate, harmony and dissonance, and everything in between. The result is wise, funny, surprising, and completely engrossing ."
Susan Orlean

"Powers of Two is filled with keen insights into the human condition and terrific examples of creativity at work. This is an inspiring book that also happens to be a great read ."
Daniel H. Pink , author of Drive

“Fascinating…[a] provocative thesis on the genesis of creative innovation.”

“Quick, find a buddy. Shenk, New School professor and author of Lincoln’s Melancholy, looks at pairs—Marie and Paul Curie or Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak—to show that working in tandem can release the creative juices .”
Library Journal
“Intriguing ...interesting , even eye-opening, illuminating a complicated subject.”
Publishers Weekly

Kirkus Reviews
Shenk (Lincoln's Melancholy:How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness, 2005, etc.) debunks “the myth of the lone genius [that] has towered over us like a colossus” and its counterpart, “the most common alternative [that]…locates creativity in networks.”The author admits that he was drawn to the topic by his own sense of isolation. In his view, creative partnerships share some features of romantic couples and may have an erotic component—e.g., the relationship between the famous Russian-American choreographer George Balanchine, who brought the artistry of the Ballets Russes to America, and hisprotégé Suzanne Farrell—but their main purpose is the creative work they share. Shenk ranges over a large territory encompassing the partnerships of Charlie Munger and Warren Buffett (who collaborate on investment decisions), Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky (joint creators of the field of behavioral economics), Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg, poet William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy (whose journals provided material for his poems), and many others. However, the core of the book is the relationship between Paul McCartney and John Lennon, who not only founded the Beatles, but whose songwriting collaboration changed the landscape of pop music. The author uses the evolution of their partnership, which began in 1957 when they met in Liverpool, to illustrate many of his themes. These include the shared interests and backgrounds that bring two people together, the development of trust as their collaboration deepens and the complementarity of their roles even to the point of rivalry. In many instances, one member of the pair may appear to dominate, but both have essential roles—e.g. in their comic duo, buffoon Lou Costello got the biggest laughs, but straight man Bud Abbott was “the head guy.”Shenk's inclusion of fascinating biographical material enlivens his provocative thesis on the genesis of creative innovation.
Library Journal
★ 08/01/2014
While many books purport to explain or evoke creativity in individuals, author and essayist Shenk (Lincoln's Melancholy) explores the dynamics of creative pairs—how such partnerships are formed, how different types of duos collaborate, and how the relationships sometimes end. He vividly describes such well-known pairs as John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Steve Jobs and Steven Wozniak, Matt Parker and Trey Stone (the creators of South Park), and directors Ethan and Joel Coen but also includes people who are usually considered to be individual creators, such as Vincent van Gogh and his brother Theo, and choreographer George Balanchine and dancer Suzanne Farrell. Under tight deadline to finish the book, the author writes in the epilog that he considers himself and his editor Eamon Dolan as a creative pairing, despite living on opposite sides of the country and communicating infrequently. VERDICT This wonderful book sheds new light on an overworked topic, and the numerous anecdotes make it a pleasure to read. Anyone with any interest in psychological issues of creativity or in cultural history will tear through it. [See Prepub Alert, 2/24/14.]—Mary Ann Hughes, Shelton, WA
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780544031593
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 8/5/2014
  • Pages: 368
  • Sales rank: 84,398
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

JOSHUA WOLF SHENK is a curator, essayist, and the author of Lincoln's Melancholy , a New York Times Notable Book. A contributor to The Atlantic , Harper's , The New Yorker , and other publications, he directs the Arts in Mind series on creativity and serves on the general council of The Moth. He lives in Los Angeles.

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Read an Excerpt


On March 29, 1967, around two p.m., John Lennon came to Paul McCartney’s house in London, and they headed up to Paul’s workroom, a narrow, rectangular space full of instruments and amps and modern art.
   The day before, they’d started a new song, meant for Ringo Starr to sing. Today, they intended to finish it off. Hunter Davies, a columnist with the Sunday Times, was on hand, and his notes offer a rare window onto how John and Paul worked.
   John took up his guitar, and Paul started noodling at the piano. “For a couple of hours,” Davies wrote, “they both banged away. Each seemed to be in a trance until the other came up with something good, then he would pluck it out of a mass of noises and try it himself.”
   “Are you afraid when you turn out the light?” John offered.
   Paul repeated the line and nodded. They could begin each of the verses with a question, John suggested, and he gave another one. “Do you believe in love at first sight?”
   He interrupted himself. “It hasn’t got the right number of syllables.” He tried breaking the line between believe and in love, putting in a pause long enough to create the right rhythm. It didn’t work.
   “How about,” Paul said, “Do you believe in a love at first sight?” John sang it and instantly added another line. “Yes, I’m certain it happens all the time.” They switched the order of the lines and sang them over and over again:

   Would you believe in a love at first sight?
   Yes I’m certain it happens all the time.
   Are you afraid when you turn out the light?

   It was now five o’clock. John’s wife came by with a friend. They talked about the lines to the song so far, and, in the midst of the chatter, John said — almost to himself — in answer to what’s seen when the light is out: “I know it’s mine.” Someone said it sounded smutty.
   They chatted some more. Paul started improvising on the piano before breaking into “Can’t Buy Me Love.” John joined in, shouting and laughing. Then they both began to play “Tequila,” a 1958 hit by the Champs.
   “Remember in Germany?” John said. “We used to shout out anything.” They did the song again, with John throwing in new words at the crescendo of each line: knickers and Duke of Edinburgh and tit and Hitler.
   “They both stopped all the shouting and larking around as suddenly as they’d begun it,” Davies wrote. “They went back, very quietly, to the song they were supposed to be working on.” John sang a slight modification of the line they’d agreed on. “What do you see when you turn out the light?” Then he answered the question. “I can’t tell you, but I know it’s mine.”
   Paul said it would do and he wrote the lines on a piece of exercise paper. Then he wandered around the room. Outside the window, the eyes and foreheads of six girls could be seen as they jumped up and down on the sidewalk on Cavendish Avenue, trying to catch a glimpse over the front wall into Paul’s property. John began to play a hymn on the piano. After playing with his sitar, Paul went to his guitar, where, Davies wrote, he “started to sing and play a very slow, beautiful song about a foolish man sitting on the hill. John listened to it quietly, staring blankly out of the window.” Paul sang the song over and over again. “It was the first time Paul had played it for John,” Davies wrote. “There was no discussion.”
  It was now about seven o’clock. They were due soon around the corner at the EMI Studios on Abbey Road. They lit a joint and passed it between them. They decided to call Ringo and tell him they would do the song that night.
Introduction: 1 + 1 = Infinity

For centuries, the myth of the lone genius has towered over us like a colossus. The idea that new, beautiful, world-changing things come from within great minds is now so common that we don’t even consider it an idea. These bronze statues have come to seem like old-growth trees — monuments to modern thinking that we mistake for part of the natural world.
   We can be forgiven the mistake because creativity is so inexplicable. How, from all the sounds in the universe, from all the syllables and protean rhythms, does a great song arise? How do we account for the emergence of a good idea — the movement from chaos to clarity?
   The dominant idea today is that, because creativity resides within the individual, we best expose it by telling stories of those rare geniuses — the ones who made the Sistine Chapel or Hamlet, the light bulb or the iPod. This model basically follows the declaration made by Thomas Carlyle in the 1840s: “The history of the world is but the biography of great men.”
   The most common alternative to the lone-genius model locates creativity in networks. See, for example, Herbert Spencer’s retort to Carlyle that “the genesis of the great man depends” on a “long series of complex influences.” “Before he can remake his society,” Spencer wrote, “his society must make him.” Rather than focus on the solitary hero snatching inspiration from the heavens (or the unconscious), this concept emphasizes the long, meandering course of innovation. Instead of heroic individuals, it prioritizes heroic cultures — the courts of fifteenth-century Florence, say, or the coffee shops of Enlightenment London, or the campus of Pixar.
   The trouble with the first model of creativity is that it’s a fantasy, a myth of achievement predicated on an even more fundamental myth of the enclosed, autonomous self for whom social experience is secondary. 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.
   The network model has the opposite problem. It is basically true, but so complex that it can’t easily be made into narrative. Where the lone-genius model is galvanizing but simplistic, the network model is suitably nuanced but hard to apply to day-to-day life. An argument can be made — a rigorous, persuasive argument — that every good new thing results from a teeming complexity. But how do you represent that complexity in a practical way? How do you talk about it, not just at Oxford or the TED Conference, but in kitchens and bars?
   Fortunately, there’s a way to understand the social nature of creativity that is both true and useful. It’s the story of the creative pair.
Five years ago, I became preoccupied with this thing we call “chemistry” or “electricity” between people. My first impulse was personal: I wanted to understand the quality of connection whose presence accounted for the best times of my life and whose absence made for the worst. This led me to think about Eamon Dolan, who edited my first book, Lincoln’s Melancholy. My relationship with Eamon was an example of the chemistry that intrigued me. As I reflected on this, it occurred to me that the question of chemistry itself — and an inquiry into it based on eminent creative pairs — would get right to the nexus of our interests.
   I made a list of creative pairs I wanted to know more about: John Lennon and Paul McCartney; Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, who created Apple Computer; Marie and Pierre Curie, who discovered radioactivity; and many other notable duos. I thought that if I could begin to understand these relationships, I could learn something profound about how people buoy each other. I imagined each pair in turn, and thought about the electrified space between them, and imagined writing a biography of that space.
   The exercise quickly took on a new direction when I thought about Vincent van Gogh and his brother Theo. What was that story? I knew Theo as the recipient of Vincent’s correspondence and I had seen him described as Vincent’s supporter. But I soon learned there was much more to it. He was a hidden partner in what I came to see as a true creative pair. I found so many other examples of hidden partners — you’ll meet a number of them in this book — that it began to seem more like the rule than the exception: one member of a duo takes the lone-genius spotlight while the other remains in history’s shadows.
   Then there were cases in which two creative people, each well known individually, turned out to have influenced and affected each other profoundly — Ann Landers and Dear Abby, for example, twin sisters whose rivalry fueled careers in advice-giving, and C. S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, whose distinct works were inexorably influenced by their creative exchange. Yet, for decades, even scholars of Lewis and Tolkien assiduously downplayed how they affected each other.

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Table of Contents

Prelude xiii
Introduction: 1 + 1 = Infinity xv
Part I. Meeting
1. “You Remind Me of Charlie Munger”
Matchups and Magnet Places
2. Identical Twins from the Ends of the Earth
The Convergence of Homophily and Heterophily
3. “Like Two Young Bear Clubs”
The Varieties of Electric Experience
Part II. Confluence
4. Presence → Confidence → Trust
The Stages of Confluence
5. The Turn of Faith
The Final Stage
6. “Everybody Just Get the Fuck Out”
The Psychology of We
7. “No Power in Heaven, Hell or Earth”
Creative Marriage
Part III. dialectics
8. In the Spotlight (in the Shadows)
The Star and the Director
9. Jokestein and Structureberg
The Liquid and the Container
10. Inspiration and Perspiration
The Dreamer and the Doer
11. Turn-Taking
Generators and Resonators
12. “Everything’s the Opposite”
The Psychology of Dialectics
13. The “Other” of Our Psyche
The Dialogue of Creative Thinking
Part IV. Distance
14. Creative Monks and Siamese Twins
The Extremes in Distance
15. “Somehow We Also Kept Surprising Each Other”
The Varieties of Distance
16. “Desire for That Which Is Missing”
The Erotics of Distance
Part V. The Infinite Game
17. My Most Intimate Enemy
Creative Foils
18. Luke Skywalker and Han Solo
Creative Pairs and Coopetition
19. “We All Want the Hand”
Power Clarity and Power Fluidity
20. “I Love to Scrap With Orv”
21. Varieties of Alphas and Betas
The Hitchcock Paradox
22. “What About McCartney-Lennon?”
The Dance of Power
Part VI. Interruption
23. “Listen, This Is Too Crazy . . .”
24. The Paradox of Success
25. Failure to Repair
Why Did Lennon-McCartney Split?
26. The Never Endings
Did Lennon-McCartney Ever Splt
Epilogue: Barton Fink at the Standard Hotel 241
Selected Sources 252
Acknowledgments 265
Notes 268
Index 329

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