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5 Insights You Should Know About Creative Pairs

Many famous creative successes have NOT been the work of lone geniuses.

Shared by Karen Andrews via Freeimages.
Source: Shared by Karen Andrews via Freeimages.

I wanted to read this new book about creative pairs because working as part of a team of two is so alien to me personally. I thought maybe only gregarious extroverts worked well creatively with others. Not so.

You may be surprised as I was, as you read Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs, by Joshua Wolf Shenk. Shenk, the author of Lincoln’s Melancholy and a contributor to major magazines, also curates the Arts in Mind series. His new book is both conversational and academically credible (lots of end notes).

Orville and Wilbur Wright’s collaboration resulted in a historical first airplane flight. Beatles John and Paul together created music with which we’re all familiar. Some creative partnerships end very badly, as did that of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Other creative pairs discussed are magicians Penn Jillette and Teller, Dorothy and William Wordsworth, dancer Suzanne Farrell and choreographer George Balanchine, and dozens more.

Shenk even describes some collaborative pairs who are life partners. In each instance, he explores the aspects of the pairings that worked well and why.


1. Pairs seem, to outsiders, almost to be reading one another’s minds. They may finish each other’s sentences accurately. They “get” each other quickly.

2. Rivalry forms an integral part of some successful creative pairs. A creative duo might even fight with each other and still keep working together successfully for many years, enjoying the sparring.

3. As in any good long-term relationship, each member of the duo finds and fills a role, employing his or her own strengths for the benefit of both individuals. In a number of instances, one partner is barely if at all known to history, perhaps because his or her role was much quieter and behind the scenes.

4. The bonds between creative partners isn’t always overt, as with Lennon and McCartney, where both are known for a common body of work. Such bonds may also be distinct, where two creators influence one another in a live exchange (such as C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien), or such a bond might be asymmetrical, with a boss and an assistant. As an example, Shenk describes how golf caddy Steve Williams contributed to Tiger Woods’ game over the years. That relationship was apparently much more nuanced than just handing over clubs.

5. Creative pairs find a workable balance between connection and autonomy. To create well together, we need both alone time to access our subconscious (including during sleep) and social connection, which is one way of evaluating those brilliant ideas borne of flow to determine what will actually work.

Copyright (c) 2014 by Susan K. Perry, author of Kylie’s Heel

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