Powers of Two

Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs

by Joshua Wolf Shenk

Hardcover, 339 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, List Price: $28 | purchase

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Powers of Two
Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs
Joshua Wolf Shenk

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Shenk surveys the inner workings of creative duos—from John Lennon and Paul McCartney to Marie and Pierre Curie to Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak—and describes how their creative techniques can be adapted and used in everyday life.

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Excerpt: Powers Of Two


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.