Book Reviews, Value Investing

Powers of Two: What We Can Learn About Business Collaboration

Here is an excerpt from on a portrait of famous creative pairs and an investigation into the psychology of collaboration and then book reviews on Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs by Joshua Wolf Shenk.

The idea of the lone genius makes for a good story. Van Gogh locked away in his studio, Freud in his study, Jobs tinkering in the garage. Like Rodin’s The Thinker, our mental picture of creativity is that of the solitary creator, hunched over in thought.

Today, the idea of the lone genius is unraveling. The study of networks shows that we are small units embedded in, and influenced by, sprawling social webs. Van Gogh, born in 1853, emerged with the rise of modernism. His contemporaries were Monet and Degas, Pissarro and Cezanne. Freud lived in fin de siècle Vienna, alongside Gustav Klimt, Arthur Schnitzler, and Carl von Rokitansky. Jobs grew up in Silicon Valley, perhaps the most innovative hub in human history.

In Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson advances the idea that milieu plays an overlooked role in individual creation. The English coffee house not only replaced a depressant (alcohol) with a stimulant (coffee), it encouraged collaboration, which jump-started the English Enlightenment. We’re individuals, but only to the extent that individuality is, paradoxically, the sum of our social interactions.

Yet each perspective—the individual genius and the creative network—miss a primary component of creative output: the dyad.

Yesterday, Joshua Wolf Shenk published Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs*, a portrait of famous creative pairs and an investigation into the psychology of collaboration.

Vincent van Gogh relied on his brother, Theo. “Though Theo never picked up a brush,” Shenk writes, “it’s fair to identify him—as Vincent did—as the co-creator of the drawings and paintings that are among the most significant in history.” Freud famously bonded with Wilhelm Fliess and Carl Jung. Steve Jobs accomplished his greatest work with Steve Wozniak and, two decades later, Jonathan Ive, Apple’s design guru. Silicon Valley is filled with creative pairs: Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Paul Allen and Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg.

What is it about pairs? It’s a long answer (Shenk identifies six stages pairs move through) but one characteristic stands out. Pairs are fluid and flexible. “When even one more person is added to the mix, the situation becomes more stable, but this stability may stifle creativity, as roles and power positions harden. Three legs make a table stand in place. Two legs are made for walking or running.” It’s the human friction—the push and pull, the conflict, the contrast—that ignites our creative impulses.

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

Powers of Two

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

Powers of Two – Description

A revelatory synthesis of cultural history and social psychology that shows how one-to-one collaboration drives creative success

Weaving the lives of scores of creative duos—from John Lennon and Paul McCartney to Marie and Pierre Curie to Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak—Joshua Wolf Shenk identifies the core qualities of that dizzying experience we call “chemistry.” Revealing the six essential stages through which creative intimacy unfolds, Shenk draws on new scientific research and builds an argument for the social foundations of creativity—and the pair as its primary embodiment. Along the way, he reveals how pairs begin to talk, think, and even look like each other; how the most successful ones thrive on conflict; and why some pairs flame out while others endure.

When it comes to shaping the culture, Shenk argues, two is the magic number, not just because of the dyads behind everything from South Park to the American Civil Rights movement to Starry Night, but because of the nature of creative thinking. Even when we’re alone, we are in a sense “collaborating” with a voice inside our head. At once intuitive and surprising, Powers of Two will change the way we think about innovation.

Powers of Two – Review

A Conversation with Joshua Wolf Shenk

How did you get the idea to write Powers of Two?

All my work usually starts with some basic question that feels urgent to me personally. This one began with a curiosity about this thing we call “chemistry” or “synergy” between people. I’ve had tastes of it in my life, flashes and interludes (and some longstanding relationships) when I feel quicker, smarter, and more capable in the presence of another person. It’s like something between me and this other person activates me. Do you know those old kids’ toys where you pull a long serrated piece of plastic through the guts of a car, and it makes the car go? It feels like that. Anyway, I found myself thinking about the interaction between two people as its own thing, its own creature almost. I imagined photographs of some iconic pairs—like the famous shots of John Lennon and Paul McCartney on stage next to each other. I wanted to investigate that space between them—or call it energy or whatever. I wanted to know how two people can do things together that are better, bolder, and more enduring than what they do alone. And I thought that if I looked at enough eminent partnerships, I might see the essential qualities of chemistry (and the key variations).

You say that “the pair is the primary creative unit. ” Does that mean that ALL valuable creations are products of pairs? Or most? Just the best ones?

I mean “primary” in two ways. On a literal level, it’s staggering the degree to which the things we care about most, that have improved our lives the most, have a pair at the center of the story. Even within groups like the impressionists, the sociologist Michael Farrell says, the critical advances tend to happen in pairs. And it’s not hard to see why. Pairs tend to be fluid and flexible, for example, whereas adding even a third person tends to harden a dynamic. But the pair is also a model. Creativity is fundamentally social, so to make sense of it, we should look at the smallest possible social unit, which is the dyad. Yet pairs have gotten disastrously little attention. As a culture we’ve been consumed with the myth of the lone genius—the single guy in the spotlight—for hundreds of years. And the usual response to that myth today is to emphasize the very, very big picture—to pull way out and show the producer and the director and the stagehands and the audience, and so on. The first view really misrepresents how creative work gets made. The second doesn’t teach us anything about the primary role of intimate, interpersonal exchanges.

You say that creative pairs can consist of intense rivals, like Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. How can competitors possibly produce something together?

Trying to beat someone often raises the level of your own game, and over time the relationships that emerge between competitors has an even stronger effect. That’s been studied empirically, but we also see it in all kinds of fields. The other important point is that unlike sports, say, where it’s clear that one side has to win, rivalry often happens within a partnership, like with Lennon and McCartney. Trying to outdo one another was a big part of how they improved each other. And this is a big point of the book, that it’s not just what people do for each other in any concrete way. It’s the way they get in each other’s heads.


“We sometimes think of creativity as coming from brilliant loners. In fact, it more often happens when bright people pair up and complement each other. Shenk’s fascinating book shows how to spark the power of this phenomenon.” – Walter Isaacson

“When I spoke with John Lennon in 1980—the final in-depth interview of his life—he described writing many songs ‘eyeball to eyeball’ with Paul McCartney. Powers of Two conveys the intimacy and complexity of their collaboration—and collaboration in general—with brilliant clarity.” – David Sheff, author of All We Are Saying: The Last Major Interview with John Lennon and Yoko Ono

“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

All future accounts of artistry and innovation will be enriched by the treasures Joshua Wolf Shenk has uncovered in the creativity of pairs.” – Lewis Hyde, author of The Gift

Powers of Two is a dramatic, often delightful demonstration of a truth we usually ignore: great accomplishments are rarely the work of a single person. If you aspire to be creative, the most important step might be finding a trusted partner who can support your strengths and offset your weaknesses.” – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow

Powers of Two 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

Powers of Two is filled with keen insights into the human condition and terrific examples of creativity at work. This is an inspiring book that also happens to be a great read.” – Daniel H. Pink, author of Drive

“Fascinating…[a] provocative thesis on the genesis of creative innovation.” – Kirkus