Joshua Wolf Shenk

Many Americans hold onto the myth of the “lone genius,” believing that creativity resides inside the heads of individuals working alone. From college achievement tests to baseball player statistics to MacArthur genius grants, we’ve reinforced this idea over and over again until it has become accepted knowledge, taken for granted to be true.

But, according to a new book by essayist Joshua Wolf Shenk, Powers of Two, many “lone geniuses” had the help of creative partners, often given less (or no) credit for their important contributions.

His book points to the social nature of creativity, making the case that many of our greatest inventors, artists, and thinkers needed someone to play off of in order to do their best work.

Shenk interviewed hundreds of creative pairs and poured over several historic accounts of famous partnerships to come up with his social theory of creativity and to identify six stages of the creative pair relationship:

  • Meeting: discovering similarities and exciting differences in each other
  • Confluence: moving beyond interest in each other and beginning to surrender elements of their singular selves to become a joint identity
  • Archetypes: creating distinct and enmeshed roles within the pair
  • Distance: finding the right distance and space in which to cultivate ideas
  • The Infinite Game: finding a balance of competition and cooperation at the height of their work
  • Interruption: ending the pairing, due to some loss of balance in their relationship.
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  • The Greater Good Science Center is co-hosting a talk by Joshua Wolf Shenk about Powers of Two on September 25, in Berkeley, California.

By recounting the stories of famous creative pairs—like Lennon and McCartney, or Pierre and Marie Curie, for example—Shenk makes these stages come alive for readers and shows us the importance of interaction in the creative process. We see how the pairs learned to trust one another, excite each other’s passions, take risks together, and develop their talents to create something that neither individual could have accomplished alone. We also see how and why some of the partnerships fizzled over time.

Though Shenk’s book is largely observational, he also delves into some psychological research that supports his premise. For example, he cites experiments that have shown how the same neurons in the human brain that fire when one performs a given action will also fire when one observes someone else performing that action. According to Shenk, this suggests that our experience of our world is less individual—and more socially-oriented—than we might think.

“We don’t know precisely how our minds link up with others, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that these linkages account for much of what’s considered ‘the mind,’” writes Shenk. “The ‘self’ can be understood only as a relational phenomenon.”

In another study he cites, five hundred employees at a large science laboratory were observed to see how likely they were to collaborate with one another. Researchers found that employees from the same academic discipline were twice as likely to collaborate with colleagues on the same floor as with those separated by just one floor, and six times more likely to collaborate with someone from another discipline if they sat close to one another. This suggests that close proximity to another person helps spark creativity, writes Shenk, perhaps because humans are specially attuned to each other and social interplay can foster new ideas.

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014

Yet some research seems to support the opposite conclusion. For example, experiments have shown that sleep helps individuals to solve problems that demand insight—ostensibly, because the brain can come up with creative solutions while disengaged from others and from daily life. This suggests that innovation may not be strictly a social interaction, but one requiring some level of solitude as well or the interplay between both. Perhaps that is why Shenk suggests that many creative pairs need to find the right balance between distance and closeness in working together.

The scientific evidence may not be clear about how creativity pairs do their work. But Shenk’s book is still fascinating and well worth a read. It’s fun to learn the inside scoop on the creative partnerships of people like J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, or Bruce Springsteen and Clarence Clemons. And Shenk does make an important point: creativity can be—and often is—a social endeavor, rather than the work of a lone genius.

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