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

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

by Joshua Wolf Shenk


View All Available Formats & Editions
Members save with free shipping everyday! 
See details


“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
Lennon and McCartney, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, Pierre and Marie Curie. Throughout history, partners have buoyed each other to better work — though often one member is little known to the general public. (See Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger, or Vincent and Theo van Gogh.) In Powers of Two, Joshua Wolf Shenk draws on neuroscience, social psychology, and cultural history to present the social foundations of creativity, with the pair as its primary embodiment. Revealing the six essential stages through which creative intimacy unfolds, Shenk shows how pairs begin to talk, think, and even look like each other; how the most successful ones thrive on conflict; and why some cease to work together while others carry on. At once intuitive and deeply surprising, Powers of Two will reshape the way you view individuals, relationships, and society itself.
“Sterling . . . a rare glimpse into the private realms of duos . . . Shenk is a natural storyteller.” — Sarah Lewis, New York Times
“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

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780544334465
Publisher: HMH Books
Publication date: 04/07/2015
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 216,159
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

JOSHUA WOLF SHENK is the author of Lincoln’s Melancholy, named one of the best books of 2005 by the New York Times. Shenk is a contributor to the Atlantic,Time,The New Yorker, the New York Times, and other publications.

Read an Excerpt


"You Remind Me of Charlie Munger"

Matchups and Magnet Places

Similarity is a good place for us to start, because common interests and sensibilities usually bring future partners together in the first place. I saw three kinds of meetings: an introduction made by a mutual acquaintance; an encounter at a place of common interest; and a seemingly chance meeting that turned out to be driven by a subterranean similarity.

In 1957, a twenty-seven-year-old investor in Omaha, Nebraska, pitched some family friends named Edwin and Dorothy Davis to join a fund he managed. Dr. Davis hardly seemed to listen. But after he conferred with his wife, they agreed they'd put in $100,000 — most of their net worth, and a huge sum to the investor, Warren Buffett, whose portfolio at the time came to $300,000.

Buffett asked Dr. Davis why he'd take such a big risk. "You remind me of Charlie Munger," Davis replied. Two years later, when Munger, a thirty-five-year-old lawyer in Los Angeles, returned to his hometown of Omaha for a visit, the Davis family arranged for the two men to meet. Thus began the partnership behind what's probably the most successful investment operation in the history of capitalism.

The human mind naturally matches like and like. It satisfies a primal need. It's like those memory games children play. You turn over a card showing a watermelon, and a sudden appetite arises: seeking the other watermelon card feels as natural and urgent as breathing.

In pretty much the same way, people match friends they think have things in common. That's why one day in 1971, a teenager named Bill Fernandez introduced a sixteen-year-old high-school friend named Steve to another Steve, a twenty-year-old college kid who lived on Fernandez's block. "One day," Fernandez remembered, "Steve Jobs bicycled over to hang out with me and do electronics projects in the garage, and out in front was [Steve] Wozniak washing his car. So I thought to myself, Okay, this Steve is an electronics buddy. He's an electronics buddy. They'd probably like to meet each other."

Sometimes introductions spring from practical needs. When Józef Kowalski discovered that his young Polish friend Marie Sklodowska, a physics student in Paris, needed lab space, he thought she might get help from a physicist he knew named Pierre Curie.

In a screenplay about great partners, a conduit like Edwin Davis or Bill Fernandez or Józef Kowalski would be excised, because we cherish the romantic notions of matches made by fate.

But if there is such a thing as fate, it works through human agents. Unlike in the movies, where the girl who will change the hero's life just walks up to him in the doctor's waiting room, most significant real-life connections emerge from other connections. Consider a study by the sociologists Duncan J. Watts and Gueorgi Kossinets on how friendships form on a university campus. Roughly 45 percent of new pairs met through mutual friends, and another 41 percent of new pairs met through mutual friends and shared contexts (like classes). The formation of new ties varied with network distance, meaning that individuals who were separated by two intermediaries (that is, they shared neither friends nor classes) were thirty times less likely to become friends than individuals who were separated by just one intermediary.

The fact that sublime, life-changing introductions often emerge from other, more mundane relationships may seem obvious to the socially sophisticated, but it's a crucial lesson for those of us who seek to connect from a place of relative isolation. As John Cacioppo and William Patrick observed in their book Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, people starved for intimacy tend to lose their bearings even in ordinary encounters. Frustrated with the awkwardness they feel, they may retreat further. The way up from the bottom of this social staircase is not to leap straight for the top but to simply take the first step: Say hello to the guy in the elevator. Make eye contact in the conference room. For God's sake, call your mom. Even the smallest moment of authentic contact can be elevating. Like a pianist warming up with scales before tackling a sonata, we can use social niceties or bland factual exchanges to set ourselves up for the possibility of something more advanced — sharing a risky idea, say.

Just as loneliness can be a downward spiral, so can connection whorl us up into higher spheres. When we get moving, we can move quickly, because, as the science of social networks shows, we're even more broadly interconnected than we realize. A 2011 study of Facebook found that, of its 721 million users at the time, the average number of links from one arbitrarily selected person to another was 4.74 — less, even, than the "six degrees of separation" made famous in John Guare's play of that name.

But making those links isn't necessarily easy. In fact, some clusters of society can be devilishly hard to penetrate. One key to fluid movement is what the psychologist Karen Fingerman calls "consequential strangers." These are people outside your inner circle who have enough interest in you to make connections but enough distance from you to be exposed to interesting people in other spheres. According to a study by the sociologist Mark Granovetter, well over half of a sample of professionals in Newton, Massachusetts, got their jobs through personal connections. And more than 83 percent of the personal connections that led to jobs involved only occasional or rare contact.

This may tempt you into magical thinking — that someone in the outer reaches of your circle will swoop down and deliver you to someplace new. But it's more accurate to view these relationships as magnifiers of your own interest and attention. In all the cases I've mentioned so far, both future members of a pair had given the conduit a reason to introduce them. They hadn't just dreamed their private dreams. They had taken steps, however tentative, to realize a vision. When you speak of what you want, and even one person hears, it may begin a generative loop.

The second major way people meet vital partners — and enact the loop between personal interest and social connection — is by going to what the sociologist Michael Farrell calls a "magnet place," or a locus for people with shared interests or yearnings.

Schools are obvious magnet places. Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the co-creators of South Park, met in an undergraduate film class at the University of Colorado. The psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, who would go on to create behavioral economics, first connected when Kahneman invited Tversky to talk to his class at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the cofounders of Google, met on a tour Brin led in the spring of 1995 for students (including Page) who had been admitted to Stanford's grad school. James Watson, a twenty-three-year-old American whiz-kid biologist, met Francis Crick, a thirty-five-year-old Brit trained in physics meandering through his PhD thesis, when Watson went to Cambridge University's Cavendish Laboratory to work on x-ray crystallography, a method to study the atomic structure of molecules. Together they would discover the structure of DNA.

Magnet places exude a power even for people who come without any concrete ambition. In 1967, a twenty-year-old poet and artist and dreamer named Patti Smith was drawn as though by a magnet to the Brooklyn neighborhood around an art college called the Pratt Institute, where some of her friends went to school. "I figured if I placed myself in their environment that I could learn from them," she wrote in her memoir Just Kids. When she went to her friends' house, it turned out they had moved, but the boy who answered the door pointed her to the back room where his roommate, also a Pratt student, lay sleeping. It was Robert Mapplethorpe, who would become Smith's creative alter ego.

Indeed, a magnet place needn't even be an institution; it could be an event that lasts only a matter of hours, like the Atlanta church service in the fall of 1950 where two young preachers, Ralph David Abernathy and Martin Luther King Jr., met, the first contact of a partnership that led to the American civil rights movement. In 2007, Mark Zuckerberg, the twenty-three-year-old CEO of Facebook, went to a Christmas party at the home of another Silicon Valley entrepreneur and met a Google executive, Sheryl Sandberg, who three months later signed on as Zuckerberg's COO.

Sometimes, the magnetic pull radiates from one member of the eventual pair. Susan B. Anthony, a teacher, abolitionist, and temperance advocate, was a young soldier in reform movements when she came to Seneca Falls, New York, in 1851 for an antislavery conference. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, though only five years older, was that movement's general, having drafted a Declaration of Sentiments that sounded a call for equality of the sexes unlike any the world had yet heard. They met on the street, and Stanton immediately took a liking to the younger Anthony, who would become her chief aide.

Even as we note the great outcomes of these meetings, we should keep in mind how humbly, and with how much effort, they may begin. One day in 1960, a fourteen-year-old girl in Cincinnati, Ohio, danced her heart out for a visiting ballerina from New York, who was scouting for scholarship students for the School of American Ballet, affiliated with the choreographer George Balanchine's company. Roberta Sue (Suzi) Ficker had danced for years and had often played a game with her friend where they would fall into armchairs and pretend they were collapsing into the arms of Balanchine's leading men. Her technical skills weren't enough to win her a scholarship. But when the scout heard that Ficker's mother planned to move her girls to New York City, she suggested they call the school directly for another try.

On August 16, 1960, her fifteenth birthday, Ficker had her audition. When she got to the rehearsal space, she was surprised to see Balanchine himself. He watched her dance with his head tilted back. She sang to accompany herself, hoping to fill the room's "loud silence." "It just seemed to go on forever," she remembered. Finally Balanchine clapped his hands, said, "Fine. That's enough. Thank you. Goodbye," and left the room.

She got a call the next day. She had been accepted.

Some meetings seem accidental, but we just need to brush up on the context in order to see the influence of a magnet place. On July 31, 1960, Valentino Garavani, a twenty-eight-year-old fashion designer, came to a café on the Via Veneto in Rome with some friends, but they couldn't find a table. Someone in Valentino's group saw a handsome younger man — a twenty-two-year-old architecture student named Giancarlo Giammetti — sitting alone and asked if they could join him. Giancarlo and Valentino took a fancy to each other, began to date, and soon found themselves in business together, with Giancarlo building an infrastructure to prop up Valentino's dream: to dress the world's most beautiful women.

It wasn't chance, though, that caused their paths to cross. Valentino had come from a small town in the north of Italy; he was a dogged, relentless kid who made his way out of the provinces to Paris, where he was an apprentice designer. Then he broke out on his own and returned to Rome; he felt intuitively that the heat was there. Giancarlo was born in the city — his father had an electronics shop near the Via Veneto. But he was not from the privileged class, and it was no small bit of gumption for him to thrust himself into the scene made iconic by the Fellini film La Dolce Vita. Describing them meeting by "chance" at a hot-spot café in early 1960s Rome would be like describing an "accidental" encounter at New York City's Studio 54 in the late 1970s. "Valentino and Giancarlo were at the right place at the right time," Matt Tyrnauer, the director of Valentino: The Last Emperor, told me, "but it wasn't an accident. They put themselves in that café, which was itself the epicenter of an historical moment."

Cafés are the epitome of city life, places where people brush up against new bodies and minds — the Enlightenment itself was fueled by the invention of the coffeehouse. And cities are magnet places writ large. Full of jangles and crowded spaces, they draw, and keep, people who endure the hassle because they're seeking something — namely, one another.

Cities beget creative connection, and that's one major reason they are thriving today. In the 1990s, when information technology unleashed workers from their cubicles, some social scientists predicted the demise of urban living, but the past two decades have actually seen sharp increases in urban populations throughout the world, and especially dramatic concentrations of what Richard Florida calls "the creative class."

Physical contact matters a great deal in creative work. A study in the late 1980s by Bell Communications Research looked at a large industrial research and development laboratory with about five hundred employees in the fields of physics, engineering, and computer and behavioral science. Researchers within the same discipline were twice as likely to collaborate with colleagues on the same floor than with ones just an elevator stop away. Researchers in separate departments who sat close together were six times more likely to collaborate with one another than with those in their own departments on separate floors.

This study was published before the widespread use of e-mail, but even in the age of laptops and smartphones, the best work still seems to emerge from person-to-person contact. According to a 2010 study of thirty-five thousand papers in biomedicine that had at least one author from Harvard, the work of physically close collaborators resulted in many more citations (an indication of the importance of the research) than the work of collaborators who were farther from one another. According to the study, citations were negatively affected not only by collaborators' working on different campuses but also by their working in different buildings on the same campus.

Perhaps the most striking endorsement for direct interaction comes from the very companies who profit from virtual exchange. Yahoo insists that employees work in the office (rather thantelecommute). When asked how many Google employees telecommute, the company's chief financial officer, Patrick Pichette, replied: "As few as possible."

Bodies matter, in part because of the well-established importance of nonverbal communications; several studies have shown that gestures are more than four times as important as words.

And the advantages of personal contact include experiences we can't consciously register. In a shared space, people plug into what the psychologist Daniel Goleman has called "neural WiFi," "a feedback loop," he writes in Social Intelligence, "that crosses the skin-and-skull barrier between bodies." When scientists videotape conversations and slow them down to watch frame by frame, they detect synchronies between nonverbal elements — a shared rhythm very much like the beat that guides an improvisation in jazz. The movements themselves are coordinated to within a fraction of a second — our brains are taking in data on the order of milli- or microseconds. But conscious processing of information happens in the comparatively sluggish scale of seconds. When two people talk to each other, writes Goleman, "our own thoughts can't possibly track the complexity of the dance."

The core value of a magnet place is the juxtaposition of mutual interests. Typically, we see this in places of concentration — like in the places favored by geeks. But it may also happen in places of relative isolation, as when two geeks find each other in a crowd of jocks. When a Danish teenager named Lars Ulrich moved to Newport Beach, in Orange County, California, in 1980, he found himself totally alone in his obsession with the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, which included bands like Saxon, Iron Maiden, and Def Leppard. In his high school, Lars told biographer Mick Wall, "it was literally five hundred kids in pink Lacoste shirts and one guy in a Saxon Tshirt — me ... I was an outsider — doing my own thing ... I'd walk around school with a Saxon T-shirt on and people would look at me as if I was from another planet."

Lars felt so isolated that he took out a classified in a paper called the Recycler: "Drummer looking for other metal musicians to jam with." James Hetfield answered the ad. He was so shy that he couldn't make eye contact, Ulrich remembered, but he had the same fervent interest in music. Metallica, the band they cofounded, would go on to sell more than one hundred million albums.

Of course, many pairs don't have a first-meeting story that we know about — or even that they know about. Most siblings — Orville and Wilbur Wright, William and Dorothy Wordsworth, Joel and Ethan Coen — won't remember a time they didn't know each other. But even within that milieu, it is striking how many of these pairs create a world unto themselves based on shared interests. Vincent and Theo van Gogh were the first and third of six surviving children but their unusual rapport was noticeable to their sister Elisabeth, who said that even as a boy, Theo considered Vincent "more than just a normal human being." "I adored him more than anything imaginable," Theo said.


Excerpted from "Powers of Two"
by .
Copyright © 2014 Joshua Wolf Shenk.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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

Customer Reviews