Is creativity a product of the “lone genius”? Not necessarily, writes Joshua Wolf Shenk in his new book, “Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs.” This week I had the chance to ask Joshua about his bold new theory, plus his favorite Beatles song. If you’re curious to find out more, and why on earth I’m asking about the Fab Four, check him out in person next Monday, Aug. 18, at 7 p.m. at Porter Square Books.
We’ve always heard about the “lone genius,” but in your book you set out to prove something different. Tell me about that.
Great creative work emerges from relationships. That’s what I found after five years of studying creative pairs. We cling to the myth of the lone genius, but it’s never true. Even when people spend a great deal of time alone, they are dependent on others. It was amazing to me, but one by one the “lone genius” icons turned out to be buoyed by partnerships—Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, even Emily Dickinson.
Do people need to be friends to create together? Have you found that competition makes for more creative partners?
In romance or friendship, the main question to ask about a relationship is whether it makes us happier. With creative intimacy, the only question is: How good is the work? Partners do often enjoy each other—but they also may goad or vex each other, or worse, and that can be part of the greatness. One journalist described Google’s co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page as “two swords sharpening each other.”
Do creative pairs always have a leader and a follower? Can people’s roles change in the relationship?
One person does tend to take the dominant position—it was John Lennon in his partnership with Paul McCartney—but there needs to be fluidity in the exchange. One dramatic illustration is to look at a CEO like Barbara Corcoran and her assistant. It’s obviously not a symmetrical relationship, but it is immensely creative. One reason we don’t understand creative intimacy nearly as well as we should is that we think if there’s collaboration, everything needs to be 50/50 in every respect: power, credit and so on. But that’s not true at all. There are immense varieties of relationships, which I lay out in the book. I find it really helpful to see these variations because they make me realize how many choices I have about how to bring more exchange into my life.
You seem to focus on the Lennon-McCartney duo throughout the book, so I have to ask: What’s your favorite Beatles song?
Oh, wow, that’s a tough one! I’ll go with “We Can Work it Out,” for a few reasons. First, it puts me in a good mood, as most Beatles songs do. Second, it’s a great example of John and Paul making each other better. Paul brought the start of the song to John—the lyrics that John described as “real optimistic, y’ know.” John added what he called the “impatient” bridge: “Life is very short and there’s no time for fussing and fighting, my friend.” Third, it’s a song that’s been covered in a sublime way by Stevie Wonder, which reminds me that John and Paul were crafting songs that lived as their own creatures, more than just the way they recorded them with the band.
Four Questions is a weekly interview column featuring interesting people connected with the Greater Boston Jewish community. Find past columns here. Have an idea of someone we should interview? Email Molly!