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Book Review: Powers of Two: Finding The Essence of Innovation In Creative Pairs by Joshua Wolf Shenk
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Book Review: Powers of Two: Finding The Essence of Innovation In Creative Pairs by Joshua Wolf Shenk - Executive Leadership Articles

Book Review: Powers of Two: Finding The Essence of Innovation In Creative Pairs by Joshua Wolf Shenk

Executive Leadership Articles

Book Review: Powers of Two: Finding The Essence of Innovation In Creative Pairs by Joshua Wolf Shenk

John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Marie and Pierre Curie, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak: creative pairs who changed the landscapes in their respective fields. What is it about these highly visible and highly successful innovators, working together, that brought about levels of creative genius seemingly unattainable by any one person working alone? This is the question addressed by Joshua Wolf Shenk in Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014). Shenk examines the formation, working dynamic, and seemingly inevitable dissolution of some of the world's most lauded creative pairs (and several possibly lesser known pairs) in a search for what turns creativity into product.

Sharing anecdotes about private moments that birthed such cultural landmarks as "With a Little Help from My Friends" and the discovery of radium, Shenk breaks the lives of creative pairs into six observable stages: meeting, confluence, dialectics, distance, the infinite game, and interruption. Categorizing different kinds of relationships within each stage, he presents these as evidence that "more is possible—more intimacy, more creativity, more knowledge about this primary truth: that we make our best work, and live our best lives, by charging into the vast space between ourselves and others." Not merely a report on consistencies in the working minds of creative pairs, The author aims to convince the reader that "the pair is the primary creative unit." Even when it seems the romantic ideal of the lone, creative genius is at play, he insists, there is a hidden partner hiding in the shadows, as with Vincent Van Gogh and his art-dealer brother Theo.

The book reads best when Shenk shares an unfamiliar glimpse at working pairs in the process of doing something familiar to the reader, as with most of his McCartney-Lennon stories. We may think of John as the smart one and Paul as the cute one, but Shenk offers the metaphor of John as the liquid and Paul as the container:

  • In its natural state, liquid tends to disperse. Liquid-type creatives are drawn to make lateral associations rather than linear progressions. They’re often exciting, excitable characters; boundless. They embody the promise and peril of risk and are simultaneously repelled by and drawn to people who impose constraints, who can offer them shape. Without those constraints, they will spill out onto the sidewalk, evaporate in the sun. The container sort exudes order and clarity. He is hollow inside; he needs filling up and can take on the character of whatever he becomes a vessel for, whatever he can help deliver. Container types are simultaneously excited by and scared of people who push up against their edges. Electricity depends on the fluid movement of electrons, as with copper wire. Yet wires need casing.

By itself, this approach would make a fascinating book if that were all it aspired to, as Shenk applies his metaphors to the likes of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, Graham Nash and David Crosby, Alfred Hitchcock and a few of his leading ladies, and other less-obvious creative pairs. But he aspires to something more meaningful than breakdown, definition, and comparison. Shenk delves into deeper water, looking also at the psychology of creativity and the nature of human relationships. He struggles a bit here in an effort to keep his work accessible, but the abstractions don't tie quite as easily to the illustrations as the metaphors do to their immediate subjects, and he even acknowledges this while in the middle of one such rumination.

The casual reader may choose to gloss over these harder to read abstractions on the dynamics of human relational needs, and such a reader will still find quite a bit to take inspiration from. Yet the reader who slows down and swims around in them is likely to find at least a few things to reflect upon as they relate to his or her own relationships, personal and professional. We tend to think of creativity as radical and exciting, but there are levels and kinds of excellence that are a form of creativity, by Shenks's definition, and who doesn't want or need more excellence in their lives or organizations? In fact, Shenks discloses in the introduction to the book that he has spent most of his adult life alone, and that he seeks the kind of intimacy illustrated by the stories he shares. This involvement of himself within the structure of the thesis could come across as self-indulgent, but instead it works as a device for involving the reader in the process of discovery. Somehow, the writer makes it about himself, which makes it easier for us to make it about ourselves.

Shenks tries his best not to end the book on a down note, but the sixth stage is interruption, which is final in most of the cases offered as support. The Beatles never officially broke up, and it seems McCartney and Lennon were open to the idea of continuing their working relationship, but theirs is an interruption that cannot be picked up again, so there's a definite, deflated mood at the book's end. Still, Powers of Two is a worthwhile, rewarding book that will quite likely move you toward seeking and nurturing creative pairs in your life and work. Recommended.

 

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Book Review: Powers of Two: Finding The Essence of Innovation In Creative Pairs by Joshua Wolf Shenk - Executive Leadership Articles

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