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Why the Lone Genius Is (Mostly) a Myth

Author Joshua Wolf Shenk argues that two is the magic number when it comes to generating real innovation.
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"You know, Larry's kind of obnoxious," Sergey Brin once said of his Google co-founder Larry Page. For the record, Page thought pretty much the same about Brin in the early days. But where would the search giant be without the pair?

That question lies at the heart of Joshua Wolf Shenk's new book out this week, Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs, in which, drawing on academic research, historical evidence, and original reportage, he explores what makes creative partnerships tick, from a foundation of trust to a spark that ignites when two people are "as alike as identical twins and as unalike as complete strangers." I spoke with Shenk about why the lone genius is a myth, creativity is inherently social, and what really makes co-founders turn on each other (hint: it's green). Below is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.

From Steve Jobs to Mark Zuckerberg, our culture tends to revere the lone genius. Why? 

The simple answer is that it just makes for a really great story. It's very appealling, it's alluring, it's the hero's journey, and we can track it. We identify with a character and it's all very clear. There's a deeper, more heady answer to your question, however, which is that going back to the 16th century this model of a man alone being the center of our experience emerged. It emerged as a way of combatting this extreme effacement of individual dignity that had been dominant for so long, that we were all subjects of the king and should be in thrall to the pope. There was this swing back and that developed over time during the Enlightenment and was a huge part of Cold War culture in the West. 

So what's special about pairs of creative people?  

Why is the pair special? It probably goes back to the way we develop in one-on-one exchanges with a caregiver. The pair is also really unusual because it's a social unit but it's also immensely fluid and flexible. Two people can take roles, and switch roles, and get the balance just right between solitude and connection. The moment a third person joins, things get more stable and regular--which can be useful at times, but also more rigid. The metaphor I like to use is that two legs are for running or jumping, and three legs make for a solid table.

Creativity is about encountering difference. It is often really palpable that when you meet someone you're different around them and capable of doing something amazing. It may feel pleasant or it may feel like you're a toy car and suddenly got a battery put in you--or it may be unpleasant, like you got an electric shock. The stories of Larry Page and Sergey Brin immediately breaking into an argument and C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien meeting and then Lewis saying Tolkien needed a smack aren't uncommon. If it's an unpleasant exchange, if it's arousing to you, that's the core ingredient

"He's awkward and this sort of dreamy, big thinker, and she is this steely COO type," says Shenk. "They really mesh in that way."

How do these innovative pairs typically operate? 

Even if there's one person publicly identified, the partnerships are not necessarily symmetrical, with both people in the same role. It may be the role of one partner to be in the public eye more, for instance, but that doesn't mean there isn't an essential behind-the-scenes player. That's a very common dynamic: a charismatic visionary alongside a chief engineer or COO type, some other player who is seminal but whose role receives less attention. It may be that the person up front can get a lot of his or her ego needs gratified by that attention, and that's not destructive so long as they're doing what it takes to respect the other person. 

That seems to be the case with Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, though Zuckerberg has been portrayed in the past as wanting all the credit. 

You look at these moments of electricity and say who does this happen to? The basic characteristics [of creative pairs] are a profound similarity and uncanny mutual interests alongside really unusual differences, and Zuckerberg and Sandberg have these qualities--both are extremely hard-charged and ambitious, kind of far-reaching people, but he is awkward and sort of a dreamy, big thinker and she is this steely COO type, very polished and very smooth, great at organization and structure. So they really mesh in that way. And the other thing to say about them is that it's very unusual that someone as dynamic and oustanding a leader as Sandberg is willing to be Number 2 and seems entirely comfortable in that role. That's a very powerful thing. 

On the flip side, entrepreneurship is full of tales of co-founders fighting, especially when they get their first taste of success. Why? 

It's a fundamental problem to some extent when you're doing something with someone else. You have to surrender individual ownership and there's a constant tension between that desire and ego and wish for control and our hunger to own, either metaphorically or literally, what we're doing. A lot of times the tension really starts to arise not when [the co-founders] are struggling, but when it starts to take off. When you're struggling, you're all in this together and it's fun. There's a possibility for ambiguity and fluidity in the absence of some money on the table.

What makes creative pairs ultimately flame out? 

Of course, the pair exists in a context, and when you look at pairs that survive and continue to be creative together and somewhat harmonious, the context around them becomes a really critical part of the story. Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the creators of South Park, have a stable team of people who've been with them for decades. Stone and Parker have the freedom to do their thing, which often involves a lot of instability, because they're being supported so well. For Lennon and McCartney, their structure was totally thrown into disarray when Brian Epstein, their manager, died and they made this disastrous decision not to replace him.  

"I'd say Sergey is the obnoxious one." -- Larry Page.

What advice would you give to entrepreneurs looking to form constructive, creative partnerships?  

You have to come into confidence with someone, where you see that they're going to do what they say they're going to do, and that's not possible to know based on a single, positive experience. Eventually confidence moves into trust, and trust is the accrual of confidence over time, to the point where there's some kind of ineffable feeling and you can give yourself over to someone and know that they're going to be there for you. Eventually trust elevates into something called faith, this profound feeling of really believing in someone.  

And what about for the folks who are bent on becoming the next Steve Jobs? 

[I'd say creative partnerships] are not at odds with solitude. Partnerships have enormous variety. A lot of people need to have a lot of time alone and that's totally appropriate. Every partnership needs to work that out. 

IMAGES: Corbis, Corbis
Last updated: Aug 8, 2014

JILL KRASNY | Staff Writer

Jill Krasny is a staff writer for Inc. magazine, where she covers the intersection of entertainment and startups. Prior to Inc., she was a writer for MTV and Esquire and an editor at TheStreet. She is a graduate of the University of Southern California with a degree in communication. She lives in New York City.




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