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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.
"Powers of Two is such a brilliant, compelling book, it's hard to imagine that Shenk left any part of himself behind in the writing of it. Or maybe, as he posits, his separateness suffered while his book gained from the merger with his adored editor: the sacrifice of self that's necessary to achieve successful creative coupledom."
"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."
"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
"This is a book 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."
"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.”
“Quick, find a buddy. Shenk, New School professor and author of Lincoln’s Melancholy, looks at pairs—Marie and Paul Curie or Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak—to show that working in tandem can release the creative juices.”
“Intriguing...interesting, even eye-opening, illuminating a complicated subject.”
From the Inside Flap
A lyrical, revelatory synthesis of cultural history and social psychology that shows how one-to-one collaboration drives creative success
Weaving together 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 academic research, original reportage, and historical evidence to show that creativity is not the work of an individual mind. In fact, it is a social activity, and the pair is its primary embodiment. Along the way, he describes how partners in 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.
In a book as formally inventive as it is intellectually compelling, Shenk shows that when it comes to the innovations that shape our culture, two is the magic number. Dyads are behind everything from "South Park" to the American civil rights movement to "Starry Night"; indeed, they are essential to creative thinking itself. Even when we re alone, we are, in a sense, collaborating with a voice inside our head.
At once intuitive and myth-shattering, "Powers of Two" changes how we think about how we think, and inspires us to reach out and think with each other.
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Top Customer Reviews
This would have been a great book if Malcom Gladwell had done the research and writing. Gladwell is a master of scope. He finds the little stories which balances out the fame and fortune, giving a more fully normal and human take on the subject.
I think partnership is a subject worthy of further investigation. I feel we are too focused on the hero who saves us. We need to better understand the role of groups. Crowd sourcing is likely more powerful and partnership in the big picture.