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Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs Hardcover – August 5, 2014

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From the Publisher

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.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 1 edition (August 5, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0544031598
  • ISBN-13: 978-0544031593
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.3 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (55 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #288,719 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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