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Powers of Two

By Joshua Wolf Shenk

(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 338 pages, $36)

When we think of creativity, we think of the lone genius. The most common alternative is the network – innovation comes from a collection of people who might find themselves in the same era and place, be it the coffee shops of Enlightenment London or the campus at Pixar. But essayist Joshua Wolf Shenk insists there's a better way to understand the social nature of creativity: Pairs.

Sometimes a partner in the duo is essentially invisible, as with Tiger Woods and his caddy, Steve Williams. Usually it's highly visible, as with John Lennon and Paul McCartney. It can be serial, as with Steve Jobs and, over the years, Steve Wozniak and Jonathan Ive – Mr. Jobs being a supposed lone genius who interestingly always found a partner. "The pair is the primary creative unity," Mr. Shenk writes in Powers of Two.

Studying hundreds of creative pairs, he found they move through six stages:

1. Meeting

Like Wilbur and Orville Wright, sometimes creative pairs are siblings. But even then, common interests and sensibilities bring them together. The spark is usually an introduction by a mutual acquaintance, an encounter at a place of a common interest, or a seemingly chance meeting that turned out to be driven by a subterranean similarity. "Sometimes you meet someone who could change your life," he observes.

Paul McCartney went to check out a band named the Quarry Men and was impressed by its leader, John Lennon. Mr. Shenk comes back to that song-writing duo many times in the book, noting they shared many similarities. "But creative work depends on exchanges across an expanse, a coming together of strangers," Mr. Shenk suggests, and a duo's differences – the night they met, Mr. McCartney was a master of the guitar and Mr. Lennon didn't even have his tuned right – are essential to later success.

2. Confluence

Over time, the two individuals move beyond mere interest and excitement in each other to something deeper, forming a creative pair. "She was just seventeen/Never been a beauty queen," Mr. McCartney offered one day, sharing some lyrics that had come to him. Mr. Lennon snorted, "You're joking about that line, aren't you?" and his friend agreed it was bad. "Just seventeen" was intriguing but "beauty queen" was cliché. What rhymed with seventeen? Then Mr. Lennon had it: "She was just seventeen/You know what I mean." Innocence and sin – and the start of a promising song. Confluence.

3. Dialectics

Mr. Shenk suggests that all great wisdom returns to the concept of connected, overlapping opposites, such as the Taoist yin/yang or the Hegelian thesis/antithesis. In some cases, creative pairs bring together a star and a director, one in the spotlight and the other off stage, literally or figuratively. In other cases, as with Lennon-McCartney or Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, it's liquid and container, with one excitable creative person threatening to spill out of control and the other containing the partner. A final duo is a dreamer and a doer, as with South Park's Trey Parker, the visionary, and Matt Stone, who organizes the environment for creativity.

4. Distance

To thrive, the duo needs an optimal distance from each other. That provides space to develop distinct ideas and immerse themselves in diverse experiences that can later spark ingenuity. The distance may be other than geographic. Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre worked in the same café but at different tables, and both had other lovers and live-in partners. The distance can be in time, as the pair take periods away from each other or simply work during different parts of the day. Illusionist Penn Jillette notes that often in duos love is at the core – whether romantic or otherwise – but his staying power with partner Raymond Teller comes from a consistent emotional distance.

5. 'Co-opetition'

At the height of their work, as is so familiar from Lennon-McCartney, the pairs blend competition and co-operation in a stage that has been called "co-opetition."

"Sometimes, competition is so subtle that it takes care to even see. Elsewhere it is so conspicuous that it seems strange to call the competitors a 'pair,'" Mr. Shenk observes.

6. Interruption

The creative pairing will eventually end, from death if no other cause. But often they are driven apart by the same forces that kept them so dynamic. "They lose, not their spark, but their balance, often due to some critical change in the context around them," he writes. "And yet, considering how they remain bound up in each other, practically and psychologically, we can also say that creative pairs never truly end." Long after the relationship ends, they carry what they learned from each other into their new work.

This is a fascinating book, thanks to Mr. Shenk's able storytelling, inquisitive mind, eclectic research, and masterful turns of phrase – as well as the thrilling stories of the many famous people he chronicles. Readers will gain a new respect, and understanding, of creativity that can be applied to the dynamics with colleagues in their own lives.


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Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column, Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter