Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs by Joshua Wolf Shenk, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 339 pages, $28.00, Hardcover, August 2014, 9780544031593
There is something thrilling about reading accounts of great creativity. We love when a writer can bring together a collection of anecdotes that might reveal something profound about how to ignite the creative spark and nurse it into a blaze of genius. The purpose, of course, is not mere vicarious experience; we hope we can truly take something away—a recipe for innovation—that will help us spark innovation in our own lives and work. You might want to find a reading partner before you dive into Joshua Shenk’s Powers of Two. You might not find that hot new recipe for innovation you were hoping for, but you’re in for an entertaining look at the unique qualities of creative pairs. Shenk focuses tightly upon a narrow segment of a topic that many of us might consider worn out, lending it a freshness I haven’t observed since reading Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow.
Powers of Two is very clear from the start: we’re not interested in the lone genius, and we’re not looking at groups. The lone genius, Shenk says, is a myth, and groups are simply too unwieldy to analyze in any meaningful way, at least as it might relate to revealing the secret to stimulating creativity. Focusing on pairs only seems a bit narrow at first, but Shenk claims to have studied hundreds of creative pairs for this book (he has the end notes to prove it), and the findings throughout make for a pretty compelling argument. Via his own beautiful metaphor:
Three legs make a table stand in place. Two legs are made for walking or running (or jumping or falling).
Shenk’s argument begins with his definition of the creative pair—a six-step cycle that will define the structure of his book. The cycle begins with meeting and climaxes at the infinite game, before collapsing into interruption, the effective end of the creative pair. Beginning with the meeting, we see the importance of the right circumstances, as well as similarities and differences between two sides of each pair. Shenk’s apparent love of The Beatles is not unappreciated here—Team McCartney-Lennon (or Lennon-McCartney, depending on your persuasion) surfaces time and again, as the two make for an ideal example in the world of creative pairs. In demonstrating step two, confluence, Shenk brings to light the correspondence between C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, whose innovations would not have been reinforced by one another, Shenk says, had they not developed the trust in each other that confluence requires.
Time and again, Powers of Two uncovers highly intriguing cases of creative pairs that conveniently demonstrate Joshua Shenk’s life cycle for these pairs. What makes the book such an enjoyable read is not the epiphany you hoped was lurking around each corner, but simply the constant referencing of famous pairs that you might have until now failed to see as the creative pairs they were or are. It’s not your new recipe book for innovation, but Powers of Two certainly provides some fodder for the mind and might help us better understand how to foster creativity and know a creative pair when we see one.
Michael Jantz is 800-CEO-READ’s Special Projects Manager