Interview: Joshua Wolf Shenk, Author Of 'Powers Of Two' Joshua Wolf Shenk says it's time to debunk the myth of the lone genius. His new book explores creative partnerships — and explains how Emily Dickinson wasn't actually as much of a loner as we think.
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When It Comes To Creativity, Are Two Heads Better Than One?

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When It Comes To Creativity, Are Two Heads Better Than One?

When It Comes To Creativity, Are Two Heads Better Than One?

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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The writer Joshua Wolf Shenk has it in for what he calls the myth of the lone genius. In his new book, Shenk argues that creativity, far from being the product of solitary inspiration, is more commonly the result of two people interacting in a variety of ways - complementary collaboration, mutual inspiration, creative rivalry, you name it. The book is called "Powers of Two: Finding The Essence Of Innovation In Creative Pairs." And Joshua Wolf Shenk joins us from NPR West in Culver City. Hi.

JOSHUA WOLF SHENK: Oh, thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: And in a nutshell, what can two people do creatively together that one person cannot do alone?

SHENK: I'm going to turn the question around and ask, well, what has one person ever done alone? We're consumed by this myth of the lone genius. And we think of Martin Luther King, Sigmund Freud, and Warren Buffett and Steve Jobs as these great, solo creators. But, in fact, if you look into the details of their life, they are enmeshed in relationships all the way through. Steve Jobs created Apple Computers with Steve Wozniak. Flash forward to the end of his life, a lot of the great work at the height of Apple was done with his design guru, Jonathan Ive. And that's not an isolated story. That is the story of creativity. It's just not been told well before.

SIEGEL: Among some of the other pairs - you write about George Balanchine the choreographer and the ballerina Suzanne Farrell, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of South Park, the literary friendship of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, also the basketball rivalry of Magic Johnson and Larry Byrd, Orville and Wilbur Wright. But the one that you keep on coming back to over and over and over again is John Lennon and Paul McCartney.


THE BEATLES: (Singing) Now I'll never dance with another - woo - since I saw her standing there - ah.

SIEGEL: What do you find so compelling about the creative relationship between Lennon and McCartney?

SHENK: Lennon and McCartney, they just encapsulate all of the themes. Their meeting story is just gorgeous. In 1957, 15-year-old Paul McCartney ambled onto the field behind a church in Liverpool. And he saw this 17-year-old kid, full of swagger. And he was vamping to the lyrics of the Del-Vikings song - making them up, turning it into a blues song. And Paul McCartney was the kind of kid who would know exactly when that was happening because he was so meticulous. He had memorized the lyrics. Later, John heard Paul do his stuff. He could do perfect imitations of Little Richard and Eddie Cochran, Carl Perkins. And so it was this perfect meeting of guys who were totally aligned in their love of this music. And yet, their sensibilities and their temperaments and their qualities were so at odds. And so you immediately have this profound union and a profound tension that carries all the way through their relationship and leads to their great work.

SIEGEL: You would find that tension, far from being antithetical to creativity, is quite often implicit in this kind of partnership.

SHENK: It is. You know, they're constantly trying to outdo each other, even as they're involved in a joint project.

SIEGEL: Your book had me constantly testing your insistence on the powers of two mentally. So let me put in one word - on behalf of the romantic image of the lone creative genius - and have you answer it. And the one word is...


SIEGEL: Beethoven. He had some friends. He collaborated sometime. But I mean, for the end of his life, he could barely hear what they were saying.

SHENK: Yeah.

SIEGEL: Aren't there some people who just might be uniquely endowed geniuses?

SHENK: Clearly, there are enormously talented individuals and, you know, people with inborn gifts and, through practice, hone their skills to something very fine. And a great pair is not made up of two anodyne individuals, who are useless alone and only activated together. And one of the most fascinating stories, to me, is Emily Dickinson, who we think of as totally isolated - alone in her room, refusing to leave her father's house. But she was enormously enmeshed with people. Not through the kind of ordinary give-and-take that we think of as collaboration, two people sitting in a room, but by writing letters and by actually writing her poems to particular people. She sent hundreds of poems to the people who were critical to her in her life. And the poetry itself was alive with relational passion. It was electric. The solitude is an important ingredient, but that does not mean that they're not enmeshed in the social fabric.

SIEGEL: I've been focusing on two as opposed to one, but what about many as opposed to two - Monty Python, the Manhattan Project. Why not the creative powers of many?

SHENK: Well, if you start to look at larger groups, it can be relevant. It can be interesting. But it very quickly dissolves into a great complexity and that can be very useful. There's a great vital, ongoing study of networks and cultures that's spurred by the Internet and its possibilities. What I wanted to do was look at the smallest possible social unit, which is the pair, as a way of trying to get to the bottom of this social phenomenon of creativity. And one of the useful things about it is it turns out sociologists have found within circles, like the impressionists and the psychoanalysts, they found that the groups are relevant, but the critical work often ends up happening in pairs. It's also true that creative thinking itself is a kind of conversation. So that when we look at two people, we can begin to understand what actually happens in the creative mind when we're alone.

SIEGEL: Joshua Wolf Shenk, thank you very much for talking with us today.

SHENK: Thanks so much for having me.

SIEGEL: Joshua Wolf Shenk's new book about creative pairs is called "Powers of Two."

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