Describing a phenomenon many of us have experienced firsthand, either personally or by observing others, Shenk posits that two well-suited creatives together experience a surge in their output that is greater than either individual could achieve on their own. He interviewed pairs who are not household names, but used mostly the examples of well-known creative pairs that each of us will recognize to illustrate the power of creative pairing. For this he mostly used the vast record that has grown up around such pairs as Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger, James Watson and Francis Crick. In each case, Shenk posits that each pair could be shown to have followed a set of stages that allowed and fostered groundbreaking creative output: 1) Meeting, 2) Confluence, 3) Dialectics, 4) Distance, 5) The Infinite Game, and 6) Interruption.
The book uses the outline to structure his narrative, and though he occasionally uses the results of psychological/sociological studies to buttress his argument, this is not a formal proof. It is the presentation of an idea. Shenk also suggests that pairs take the form of The Star and the Director, The Liquid and the Container, The Dreamer and the Doer, or Generator and Resonator, or all of these at different times. Shenk sidesteps the debate between “Collaboration is good” and “Creators need time alone” by recognizing people vary in their needs and no one can prescribe the proper conditions for collaboration from afar. “…Complex interdependence—one with real room for idiosyncratic individuality and enmeshed identities—is characteristic of the best collaborations…The conditions required for human beings to thrive in one another’s company are…a function of balance.”
There is often an obvious power disparity between partners in creative pairs. Shenk points out that “the chief advantage of power clarity is absence of strife.” When both sides of the pair recognize which of the two is stronger, there need be little argument about it. But, Shenk follows, “To be a strong pair, both members must be able to lead and follow.” This also seems like something we probably have witnessed in our own experience. Strong husband-and-wife pairs, for instance, inevitably switch dominance roles often in their interactions, yet each feels confident of their role at any particular time. “The necessary flexibility in power can manifest in a variety of ways…The ultimate irony of extreme alphas is that they often have someone who dominates them.”
Shenk brings his thesis full circle, describing events that may precipitate a “system failure” or an interruption of the creative outpouring. Ironically, this may include success. “As the world around the pair changes, the experiences of the two within it are naturally affected too…Success can bring to the surface quarrels about credit that would otherwise remain underground” or irrelevant. “The most common wedge comes in the form of a third person who gets between a pair.”
Shenk’s theory is not as obvious as it appears at first blush. After all, he is saying creative genius does not stem from the individual alone. He allows us to consider this radical idea in the context of his many examples of successful creative pairs, either cooperating or in competition (Larry Bird and Magic Johnson), and gives us space to consider that this model may be the prevalent one for creative output, while the “lone genius” model (Einstein) is the exception that proves the rule.
For those of us who relish contemplating the creative process and that magic moment when the lightbulb comes on, Shenk’s discussion of the creative interaction between Lennon and McCartney or between Picasso and Matisse is revealing and utterly fascinating.
“For fifty years, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso pushed each other, goaded each other, drew from each other, and tried to best each other. It may not be too much to say that, over the course of their careers, they made each other—and shaped the standards for modern art in the twentieth century.”
I immediately applied Shenk’s thesis to my [admittedly limited] knowledge of Harper Lee and Truman Capote working together on the groundbreaking non-fiction fiction In Cold Blood. It could be possible that the two friends created a competitive environment that pushed each to exceed their already considerable talent to contribute material that resulted in that unforgettable book. The competition between the two may have also spurred them each individually to excel. Marja Mills, in her recent The Mockingbird Next Door (July 2014) talks a little about the relationship between the two authors.
Shenk uses his own experience with his editor as an example of the creative power of pairs, insisting that he is more clever and capable and productive when he is working directly with his editor, Eamon Dolan, whom he credits as co-creator of this book. It is a far more personal and reflective statement of theory rather than proof. Whether or not we believe this thesis to be true is hardly the point. We ourselves probably have examples of creative pairs we could consider within his outline. But whether it is true to the exclusion of the concept of “lone genius” is another matter.
My mother once told me that “Nobody is successful on their own.” This always rang true to me, since “success” can only be realized in society. Joshua Wolf Shenk’s theory focuses on the creative spur to success and his thesis states that groundbreaking creativity also requires society. He says we can do something about our creativity by facilitating the conditions for its flourishing by finding someone with whom we resonate. It makes sense. More importantly for readers, perhaps, is that it is interesting.
I am happy to offer a giveaway of this hardcover to an interested reader until August 5, when the book is published. (U.S. respondents only, please.) If you are interested in this title, you may fill out the form below. I will use a random number generator to choose a respondent. That reader will have two days to respond to my email with an address to which the publisher will send a hardcover copy of the book. Good luck and good reading!
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