In his new book, Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs, Joshua Wolf Shenk takes a provocative look at some of the world’s most iconic creative pairs and the dynamics that fuel their artistry and innovation. He talks to Life Reimagined about the creative magic of working in tandem, which can fuel an exhilarating transformation in your life, and how to recruit a creative partner.
Do people have to like each other for creative partnerships to happen?
Shenk: No, definitely not. You have to like the work. The work has to be great. That’s really the only index. Penn Jillette, who speaks for Penn & Teller, has said very clearly [Penn & Teller] were not friends early on, they had a kind of clinical relationship, a very professional relationship. He said, “If someone asked what I most liked about Teller, I’d say he was punctual.” He said the relationship was “was very, very sterile, very cold.” I think over time, just by exposure of the years, things have gotten warmer. But that’s one model.
Another model is the love story. Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis seemed to love each other and there seemed to be real love between John Lennon and Paul McCartney, for all the excitement and potential for heartbreak that brings. And then there’s another model of people who are just going at each other and fighting and driving each other up a wall, and that’s extremely common. Electricity may feel like you’re plugging into a socket and just coming alive—or it may feel like having an electric shock.
How can we find the person who will be our own creative catalyst?
Shenk: It’s a great question. The first thing is to think small. While it’s inspiring to look at these epic examples, we shouldn’t be overwhelmed by them. We shouldn’t expect to meet someone and to start making Sgt. Pepper’s. So I think it’s important to look for a little moment, for little sparks, look for the person that you feel sharper and smarter and funnier around, and look for the person around whom you feel enormously comfortable. Many people already have someone like that in their life, and it’s a matter of nourishing that and maybe paying more attention to it, maybe giving it a higher priority.
See also: Dilbert's Creator on Failing Smart
Other people need new relationships and need to seek them out. The first thing I recommend to those people is to find someone with similar interests. You can often do that by going to a place where people congregate who share certain interests: conventions or conferences, retreats or grad school, or even certain cities or cafés where like-minds congregate. Once you’re there, look for the person who is going to challenge you. Look for the person who is going to make you better, who is going to hold out a ladder for you to climb and get you higher than you are right now. But it’s one step at a time. It’s not this big leap to bathe in creative glory. It’s just one problem at a time.
Paul McCartney and John Lennon performing on stage during the Beatles' first US tour, 1964. Photo by Robert Whitaker/Getty.
Paul McCartney and John Lennon playing as The Beatles at the Cavern, Liverpool, 1963. Photo by Michael Ward/Getty