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

I get sent a lot of books about “creativity” and “innovation,” and most of the time I throw them on the pile, but after Shenk’s Atlantic piece on Lennon and McCartney got passed around so much, I thought I’d give this one a spin (I also remembered that my friend Ryan Holiday recommended his book on Lincoln’s depression.) Glad I did, because so much of what Shenk has investigated here is stuff I looked into for Show Your Work!

Some excerpts, below.

How creativity really works doesn’t fit neatly into a traditional narrative

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 be easily made into narrative. Where the lone-genius model is galvanizing and simplistic, the network model is suitably nuanced but hard to apply to day-to-day life.

Shenk says the “creative pair,” on the other hand, gives us a clearer narrative as an anecdote to the lone-genius myth without getting scrambled by the messiness of networks.

The trouble with this knowledge is that people want the lone genius myth — something marketers certainly know:

Members of an audience want to identify with a single individual, a person with whom they can have an imagined relationship. It’s well known in publishing that coauthored books are generally a tougher sell than works by single authors because readers expect (often unconsciously) to be in direct communion with an author.

This is backed up by studies that have found “viewers value single creator art better than art created through a collaborative process”:

Our perception of art… is largely dictated by the amount of time and effort we think went into it. This notion was first put forth by Denis Dutton in his book The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution, where he argued that we evaluate art not just by the final product, but also by the process that created it. We then use our evaluation of the process and final product to determine the quality of the piece we are admiring.

So, if people value our work based on what we tell them about our process, is our duty to be honest about how we work, or to give them a good story that makes them feel good about the work?

The lone genius idea is wrapped up in our Romantic notions of the individual and the self

…it’s a fantasty, 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” is usually backed up by a partner who remains in the shadows.

Take the couple I just wrote about: George Lucas and his first wife, Marcia. Or William Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy. Or Tiger Woods — his caddy, Steve Williams wouldn’t just carry his bag, but he’d give him wrong yardage to compensate for his distance problems and he’d taunt him to “get his blood up,” and “deliberately misled him when he thought it would improve his play.”

There’s also a hilarious story about Picasso and his girlfriend, Francoise Gilot—every morning the chamber made would bring him coffee and toast and then he’d begin this ridiculous process:

Picasso “would groan and began his lamentations… He would complain of his sicknesses… He would declare his mercy, and how little anyone understood it. He would complain about a letter from [his ex-wife] Olga. Life was pointless. Why get up. Why paint. His soul itches. His life was unbearable.”

Then Gilot would basically have to convince him to get out of bed, and after AN HOUR, he’d finally get up.

As Shenk writes, “No one is freed of the burdens of everyday life. One may, however, outsource them.”

(Speaking later of John Lennon, Shenk has another good line: “No grownup lives like a kid unless someone around him takes the adult role.”)

“We need to be able to get wired up without overheating, and disconnect without going cold.”

Finding a balance between is tricky, and depends on the individual.

John Lennon, for instance, was so devoid of an internal relation that he had a hard time being by himself. “His reclusive lifestyle notwithstanding,” his friend Pete Shotton said, “John could never bear to be left completely alone — even when he was composing his songs. Much of my time at Kenwood was spent idly reading or watching TV while John, a few feed away, doodled at the piano or scribbled verses on a scrap of paper.” “If I am on my own for three days, doing nothing, “ [Lennon] told Hunter Davies in 1967, “I’m just not here…I have to see the others to see myself.”


The art of living, as [Esther] Perel wrote, is to “balance our fundamental urge for connection with the urge to experience our own agency.”

(Which, come to think of it, reminds me of this Rob Walker quote I almost used in SYW.)

Side note: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre used to work in the same cafe but at separate tables.

Even Emily Dickinson needed to connect.

She just had to do it through words.

”Her letters are beyond brilliant,” Christopher Benfey, a Dickinson authority who teaches at Mount Holyoke College, told me, “and you can’t really understand her as a poet and a writer without seeing that she approached this form, alongside her poetry, with equal energy and commitment.”

Dickinson wrote poems for specific people in her life and mailed them — she even sent “more than two hundred letters and two hundred and fifty poems” to her sister-in-law Susan, “even though they lived next door to each other.”

A good rivalry, if used constructively, can push the opposite parties further than they could go on their own.

Witness Lennon and McCartney’s competitiveness (Lennon said his new album would “probably scare [Paul] into doing something decent and then he’ll scare me into doing something decent, and I’ll scare him, like that.”) or Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.

“The feeling of rivalry,” [William James] said, ”lies at the very basis of our being, all social improvement being largely due to it… The deepest spring of action in us is the sight of action in another. The spectacle of effort is what awakens and sustains our own effort.”

On a side note to all this, I have a bad habit when reading books of wondering to myself what other structures the book could’ve taken, and whether I would have done it differently. I do wonder how this would’ve read if the “grand theory” of collaboration were stripped out and each creative pair were given their own chapter, with the stories simply juxtaposed against each other. This idea is actually alluded to in Shenk’s (rather strange, actually) epilogue:

About a year ago a friend of mine, an accomplished editor and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, told me that the plan for the book — to consider scores of stories alongside one another — was nuts.

Shenk himself seems to have realized it is the stories of these pairings that really fly:

I’ve pushed for organization via the traditional mode of narrative; [my editor] has pushed for a more audacious organization by idea.

And that he’s well aware (as we all are) that this book is going on a certain spot in the bookstore shelves:

My job is to push against the conventions of “big idea” books. Eamon’s job is to hold the project to the primary necessities of the form.

Regardless, I found this a fascinating read. It comes out next week.

Filed under: my reading year 2014

Charles Dickens does the Thames w a cop with the Thames police, “Pea.” 1851. It’s like a Talk of the Town piece, only London. Here Pea tells him of the types of thieves that steal from the boats there.

Land ho. Just. #latergram #fog (at Great Diamond Island Maine)

Vacation #reading: From Hampton Sides’s gripping (true) rescue story ‘Ghost Soldiers,’ one of many quick deft bio sketches, in this case of one for the American POWs who made the Bataan Death March, which they just called ‘The Hike.’ #books #history #WW2

I pedaled up 1500 feet or so to find beaver heaven. One terraced pond after another. #vermont #summer


DALLAS (The Borowitz Report)—In his boldest move yet to address the immigration crisis, on Thursday Texas Governor Rick Perry dispatched the Dallas Cowboys to the United States’ border with Mexico.

Continue reading:

“I’d just say to aspiring journalists or writers—who I meet a lot of—do it now. Don’t wait for permission to make something that’s interesting or amusing to you. Just do it now. Don’t wait. Find a story idea, start making it, give yourself a deadline, show it to people who’ll give you notes to make it better. Don’t wait till you’re older, or in some better job than you have now. Don’t wait for anything. Don’t wait till some magical story idea drops into your lap. That’s not where ideas come from. Go looking for an idea and it’ll show up. Begin now. Be a fucking soldier about it and be tough.”
Important advice from Ira Glass. (via annfriedman)

Does the GOP really mean to bankrupt me, kill my daughter, or both?

Bolstered by Ruling, Republicans Attack Health Law

Republicans in Congress resumed their campaign against the Affordable Care Act on Wednesday with new zeal, fired up by a ruling of a federal appeals court panel that said premium subsidies paid to millions of Americans in 36 states were illegal.

Rant alert: I cannot pretend to be objective on this.

For years my wife and I paid more than our “fair share” of premiums, shelling out large while rarely needing care; no problem, part of the social contract. Finally, as premiums rose ever higher, reaching over $1000 a month and rising at double-digit rates (and this was years ago), a  comparison of realistic income and premium projections made it clear that if we continued to buy full coverage, we’d soon go bankrupt. Paying for “good insurance” was not guarding against our ruin, but guaranteeing it.

Now, because of Obamacare, we can again afford decent insurance. None too soon. Last year, my 9-year-old daughter developed Type 1 diabetes. Her care, in this country, will cost tens of thousands of year. And she must have care; without it she would die in weeks. Yet if the GOP had its way, Obamacare would be destroyed, even Medicaid would be destroyed, and in fairly short order my family would almost certainly go bankrupt and our daughter’s health compromised, her life shortened.

Yet they persist. They act as if it is their right to deny a society its desire to care for its own. There are moments when I harbor the sort of fantasy only myth can deliver: That those seeking to destroy this law and all like it would step over my threshold one day and try to take my home and loved ones directly. Then I could deal with them as Odysseus would.


Paul McCartney and John Lennon writing “I Saw Her Standing There,” 1962

I looked this photo up after reading about it in Joshua Shenk’s Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs:

One late November afternoon in 1962, John Lennon and Paul McCartney got together to write at Paul’s house at 20 Forthlin Road in Liverpool. Their ritual was to come around in the afternoon, just the two of them, when Paul’s dad was at work. They would go to the small front room overlooking Jim McCartney’s patch of garden and sit opposite each other. “Like mirrors,” Paul said.

John sat on a chair pulled in from the dining room. He had his Jumbo Gibson acoustic-electric with a sunburst finish. Paul sat on a little table in front of the telly with his foot on the hearth of the coal fireplace. He played a Spanish-style guitar with nylon strings, strung in reverse for a lefty. In a photography shot by Paul’s brother, Michael, they’re both looking down at a notebook on the floor, filled with lyrics…

…Years later, Paul told his brother that he loved his photo of the “I Saw Her Standing There” writing session because it captured how it really was—”the Rodgers and Hammerstein of pop at work.” Writing “eyeball to eyeball,” as John said, they weren’t just frontmen for a rock group; they were composers working in concert.

There’s a Lennon/McCartney excerpt of the book over at the Atlantic.

Photo credit: Mike McCartney, image via britishbeatlemania

Filed under: The Beatles

This is lovely - a splendid photo and a fine remembrance of Paul McCartney, via Joshua Shenk.


A Western is identifiable by people on horseback in the West, and a musical involves singing and dancing. But what characterizes film noir? Richard Brody on the elusive genre:

“The term ‘film noir’ has come down to us as a product of a subordinate strain of French criticism, different from the one that came to dominate cinematic discourse with the concept of auteurism, as well as to dominate filmmaking itself through the innovations of the New Wave. It had no currency among Hollywood filmmakers of the forties and fifties, for the simple reason that French criticism over-all had little influence in the U.S. until the rise of the New Wave.”

Above: “The Maltese Falcon”

Sweet exploration here.

He picked up a pebble
and threw it into the sea.

And another, and another.
He couldn’t stop.

He wasn’t trying to fill the sea.
He wasn’t trying to empty the beach.

He was just throwing…

“The most famous celebrity in Ketchum is a dead man. His grizzled mug gazes out at you from signposts and store windows all over town. The elementary school is named for him, as are a half-dozen other small businesses and parks. He is buried in the local cemetery. Still, it was ten years before I realized Ernest Hemingway and I were neighbors.”

Start the day in the #garden. Cheers & warm wishes to @adamslisa, who makes many grow.