Book Review: "The Powers of Two", by Joshua Wolf Shenk
October 9, 2014
Book Review: The Powers of Two, by Joshua Wolf Shenk
*Now you can also listen to Josh talk about his book and his tips to get into the publishing industry on the Creative Juice podcast, The Juice Cast. Listen in iTunes or on the website here.
We creative types are often resistant to collaborating with other people. Not only do we prefer to tough out the creative process in isolation, but we even convince ourselves that it’s the best way. In fact, how many of us have chosen the artistic path because we can’t collaborate in a typical office environment? Smart, creative people like us can surely solve our own problems, produce works of art and run a business. After all, nobody told Vincent Van Gogh what colors to use for “Starry Night” to make it desirable to buyers. Tiger Woods has an innate talent to judge depth perception that perfectly lands the golf ball in the hole, 50 years away. Right?
Apparently not. I discovered when I read The Powers Of Two by Joshua Wolf Shenk that so many creative dynamos of our recent human history actually did not create their brilliant contributions to the world on their own. Nope. That genius or success was actually the collective result of two minds working together. In this book, Shenk analyzes creative pairs in history and identifies exactly which aspects of those relationships produced the spark, fire and fuel to generate such memorable works of art. Here’s some of what I learned:
The Lone Genius?
Again, nope. Producing masterpieces in a vacuum is a myth. Thank goodness for this reminder! Artist Vincent VanGogh depended on his art dealer brother Theo to market, sell and increase value to his paintings. Choreographer George Balanchine needed the star ballerina Suzanne Farrell to masterfully execute his complicated and emotional ballets. John Lennon needed Paul McCartney to keep order and peace among the band and the press. Tiger Woods’ caddy adjusts distances to compensate for Tiger’s consistent tendency to overshoot the yardage.
Coopetition, Homopholie, Confluence
These are some of the attributes Shenk identifies in creative pairs, and he illustrates each with anecdotal stories of famous pairs throughout the modern era. Coopetition is the concept of creating with both cooperation and competition. I hadn’t really considered a competitive relationship to be a creative pair, but hearing the story of Magic Johnson and Larry Byrd made me a believer. Homopholie is recognizing and seeing the similarities in creative partners. Confluence is surrendering elements of one’s single self by creating a single combined entity. It’s true that you must lose a part of yourself to gain in a creative pair, but doing so can feel so darn vulnerable!
The Inevitable Interruption
Shall we face it? Or shall I face it, which might be a more honest question. Despite my fascination with psychology I, too, am actually quite afraid of creating in pairs. Joining forces with another person generates excitement, energy, and beauty, but also opens the door for tension, conflict and emotional pain. No matter how intoxicating the partnership is at the start, ultimately the relationship can get strained. Two people can create only when they are equally engaged and heading toward the same goal. That connection doesn’t always last and often changes, or fades, or desists. The devastating result is that projects get abandoned. Relationships are ruined and ended.
So why can’t we just do it on our own?
We can’t do it alone because, as creatives, what makes us brilliant is also what keeps us from achieving success in the practical aspects of our lives or creative businesses. We eschew criticism but we really do need to hear another perspective to engage in a potential audience or to respond to clients’ needs. We might need another’s schedule-keeping skills, their Excel spreadsheet-building joy, their love of finishing tasks, or their business acumen that brings adequate compensation to the work. Most of us don’t want to be bothered with that. We want to create and keep creating. Most poignant of all the reasons we can’t do it alone is that sometimes we need someone to wrench our stuck cogs loose and keep that creative process moving. To finish what we start. To push through our self-made barriers to success.
Now it’s time to tell you that I actually know Josh Shenk.
We went to middle and high school together in the small city of Wyoming, Ohio. While Josh and I weren’t tight friends, it was a small enough school that you still felt like you knew everyone pretty well. My Josh memories are of a tall, lanky, wavy brown-haired guy. He was prone to sudden bursts of movements when inspired to jot down a note in class or laugh at something that was made funnier somehow in his mind. He was a long-distance runner. He stayed up to rewrite papers that I would have been happy to just complete with a passing grade. In Mrs. Brigg’s collected works of class writing, Josh described our Geometry teacher’s quilted vests as toaster covers, a description so perfect that I still think of it frequently and laugh. I knew him as a super-smart guy, the valedictorian of the class of ’89 and bound for Harvard.
Because of this, I was so surprised when in the last chapter Josh confesses his own dependency on his editor to be the match to his own creative pairing needs. Well past the initial endorphin high at the start of the creative project and paralyzed by his roiling desperation, Josh misses deadlines and avoids engaging with his editor while internally begging him to fill his ever-emptying ego cup. His editor, the linear and rational thinker, refuses to engage in this Hot Mess of A Creative in Disarray and instead sends his agent to drop a final, FINAL deadline.
As one creative individual, Josh was struggling to finish the book on his own. He had the ability, but he would have never locked himself up in a hotel room for three days before the cold, hard January deadline and crank out the final edits. He needed some person to kick him out of his self-sabotaging rut. Josh had to pull himself back together, try to fill his own cup and engage in his editor’s dispassionate deadlines. And it worked. Josh, like the rest of us floating in our solitary boats of brilliance and desolation, needed the power of two to write The Powers of Two.
The Powers of Two, by Joshua Wolf Shenk is available here.
Reviewed by Margot Madison
Sign Up For More Creative Juice
If this was helpful to you, you can get this information without being at a Creative Juice meeting. Just sign up here.