There's a lot to like about Joshua Wolf Shenk's brand new book, Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs, especially if you're a fan of books with a theme that breaks with conventional wisdom in a counterintuitive way. Rather than take the path most traveled by treatments on creativity and innovation, Shenk approaches the topic from a very specific, historical place: famous pairs.
Given that my livelihood revolves around business creativity and innovation—and that I've witnessed firsthand the power of collaborative pairs in both software development and police work—I was keen to ask Shenk a few questions not just about some of the duos he profiles in the book but also about the mechanics of pairing.
What’s wrong with the “lone genius” myth ... the “dark side” of creativity, if you will?
It’s alluring, but the lone genius is a fiction. If you want snappy storytelling, you can talk about the heroic George Lucas or Steve Jobs. But if you really want to understand the genesis of Star Wars or the creation of the iPhone—and you’d better understand how creativity happens if you want to make something great yourself—you need to recognize that creativity is essentially social, even when it involves a great deal of solitude.
Why didn’t you write this book with a co-author?
Every field has role combinations that work best. In business, it’s often CEO/COO. In tech startups, it’s often the marketing visionary and the guru engineer. With book writing, the essential pair is author/editor. Over the past five years, my editor and I must have had hundreds of conversations and dozens of lunches, and we probably exchanged thousands of emails. I also worked with a researcher-producer, plus a literary agent and a freelance editor. The author’s name may go on the book jacket, but I hardly did it alone.
A while back, I interviewed Rich Sheridan, author of Joy Inc. and CEO of Menlo Innovations, whose software engineers all work in pairs. I’ve also done a fair bit of work with the Los Angeles Police Department, and cops work in pairs. But working in pairs isn’t for everyone. I’ve tried and cannot make it work. What guidance or guidelines can you give businesspeople about working in pairs—when it makes sense, when it doesn’t, etc.? It’s not for everyone, is it?
This is a great question, and I want to put some questions back to you. Do you have an editor? Did you have an important teacher? Does your spouse or significant other read your work or hash out ideas with you? What about colleagues? Is there anyone you’re competitive with—or who you try to emulate?
Many creative pairs aren’t like cops on a stakeout. Even Lennon/McCartney, who co-credited all their Beatles songs, often initiated work on their own. Some pairs work from separate continents. And many pairs have separate bodies of work, [like] C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. The question isn’t whether you’re in a room together or where the credit goes. The most important thing is whether two people are up in each other’s heads.
Let’s talk about Lennon and McCartney. Most music historians would argue that their collaboration as you describe only lasted until 1967 or so. By the end, starting with "The White Album," there was virtually no collaboration at all. In your view, what went wrong with the duo, and is there a cautionary tale for collaborators embedded in their history?
Yep, this is the conventional wisdom, but it really needs correction. First, the actual amount of time John and Paul spent together—collaboration in the traditional sense—is way underplayed. Much of "The White Album" was written at Rishikesh, [India,] when they went to see ... Maharishi [Makesh Yogi] in early 1968. They whiled away their days with their acoustic guitars. At least 15 Lennon/McCartney songs were written in that time.
Second, the real heart of Lennon/McCartney was often Lennon vs. McCartney. When they did get to the studio for "The White Album," John laid down "Revolution," and Paul came back with “Blackbird.” “Helter Skelter” is Paul trying to out-John John. “Julia” is John trying to out-Paul Paul.
Unless I read you wrong, you seem to conflate influence—social, romantic, historical—with collaboration at times. For example, Thoreau and Emerson. Emerson wrote The American Scholar when Thoreau was, what, 20? It’s not like they edited each other’s work. So what’s the deciding criteria of a true and successful collaboration?
Well, you’re right that influence is a different matter from direct creative exchange, but Emerson was Thoreau’s mentor and patron. Young Henry’s hut on Walden Pond was on land Emerson owned, and he often came back to Concord from his retreat to commune with the creative community of which Emerson was the sage elder.
Just in general, we ought not be put off by a difference in age. Rick Rubin was three decades younger than Johnny Cash—but he re-made Cash’s career. The dancer Suzanne Farrell was a teenager, and a novice, when she came into choreographer George Balanchine’s orbit. But even as he defined her style, she also redefined his work.
What is your favorite or best example of a winning business duo, and what can we deduce from it?
There are so many great ones—Warren Buffett and his silent partner, Charlie Munger; Steve Jobs and his design guru, Jonathan Ive; investors Marc Andreessen and Ben Horowitz. From each of them, we can learn the essentials of chemistry and roles and tension.
But maybe the most striking pair in business right now is Sheryl Sandberg and Mark Zuckerberg, because they’ve redefined the model of tech companies. The conventional wisdom in Silicon Valley used to be that you edge out the charismatic founder after the early days and replace him with a seasoned pro—to wit, Steve Jobs's first tenure at Apple. But now the tech world is obsessed—quite rightly—with pairing the visionary entrepreneur with the cool-headed master of execution. As Andreessen says of Sandberg: “Her name has become a job title. Every company we work with wants ‘a Sheryl.’”
What’s the one thing you want readers to take away from this book?
Creativity depends on connection. Always. But there are immense varieties of how this manifests. So I hope people are inspired to nourish their creative relationships—or spark new ones. But I also hope people see how much work it takes—how much we need to learn and practice and grow.
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