Summary: Powers of Two by Joshua Wolf Shenk

1. The pair is the primary creative unit. In his study of creative circles ranging from the French impressionists to the founders of psychoanalysis, the sociologist Michael Farrell discovered that groups created a sense of community, purpose, and audience but that the truly important work ended up happening in pairs, as with Claude Monet and Pierre Auguste Renoir, and Sigmund Freud and Wilhelm Fliess.

2. Why is this? For one thing, it’s probably true that we’re set up to interact with a single person more openly and deeply than with any group, given that our psyches take shape through one-on-one exchanges with caregivers.

3. The dyad is also the most fluid and flexible of relationships. Two people can basically make their own society on the go. When even one more person is added to the mix, the situation becomes more stable, but this stability may stifle creativity, as roles and power positions harden.

4. Three legs make a table stand in place. Two legs are made for walking or running (or jumping or falling).

5. Pairs naturally arouse engagement, even intensity. In a larger group, an individual may lie low, phone it in. But nobody can hide in a pair. “The decisive characteristic of the dyad is that each of the two must actually accomplish something,” wrote Georg Simmel, “and that in the case of failure only the other remains—not a supra-individual force, as prevails in a group even of three.”

6. By comparing hundreds of creative pairs, I found that they moved through six stages:

  • Meeting. Looking at the earliest encounter of individuals who will form a pair, the conditions and characteristics that engender chemistry or electricity—unusual similarities coinciding with unusual differences—become clear. 
  • Confluence. Over time, two individuals move beyond mere interest and excitement in each other—they truly become a pair by surrendering elements of their singular selves to form what psychologists call a “joint identity.” 
  • Dialectics. In the heart of their creative work, pairs thrive on distinct and enmeshed roles, taking up positions in archetypal combinations that point to the essential place of dichotomy in the creative process. 
  • Distance. To thrive for the long term, pairs need more than closeness. They must also find an optimal distance from each other, carving out sufficient space in which to cultivate distinct ideas and experiences in order to give a partnership an ongoing frisson. 
  • The Infinite Game. At the height of their work, pairs operate at the nexus of competition and cooperation, a dialectic that reveals the stark nature of power and the potential for conflict. 
  • Interruption. Looking at how pairs end, we see them driven apart by the same energies that pushed them forward. They lose, not their spark, but their balance, often due to some critical change in the context around them. And yet, considering how they remain bound up in each other practically and psychologically, we can also say that creative pairs never truly end.

7. Before we start, you may want to know just what I mean by creativity. I have borrowed a broad definition from the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: “to bring into existence something genuinely new that is valued enough to be added to the culture.”

8. Put another way: The individuals in great dyads will be very different from each other and very much alike.

9. Similarity is a good place for us to start, because common interests and sensibilities usually bring future partners together in the first place.

10. Consider a study by the sociologists Duncan J. Watts and Gueorgi Kossinets on how friendships form on a university campus. Roughly 45 percent of new pairs met through mutual friends, and another 41 percent of new pairs met through mutual friends and shared contexts (like classes).

11. The formation of new ties varied with network distance, meaning that individuals who were separated by two intermediaries (that is, they shared neither friends nor classes) were thirty times less likely to become friends than individuals who were separated by just one intermediary.

12. A 2011 study of Facebook found that, of its 721 million users at the time, the average number of links from one arbitrarily selected person to another was 4.74—less, even, than the “six degrees of separation” made famous in John Guare’s play of that name.

13. But making those links isn’t necessarily easy. In fact, some clusters of society can be devilishly hard to penetrate.

14. A study by the sociologist Mark Granovetter, well over half of a sample of professionals in Newton, Massachusetts, got their jobs through personal connections. And more than 83 percent of the personal connections that led to jobs involved only occasional or rare contact.

15. The second major way people meet vital partners—and enact the loop between personal interest and social connection—is by going to what the sociologist Michael Farrell calls a “magnet place,” or a locus for people with shared interests or yearnings.

16. Schools are obvious magnet places. Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the co-creators of South Park, met in an undergraduate film class at the University of Colorado. The psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, who would go on to create behavioral economics, first connected when Kahneman invited Tversky to talk to his class at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

17. Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the cofounders of Google, met on a tour Brin led in the spring of 1995 for students (including Page) who had been admitted to Stanford’s grad school.

18. Magnet places exude a power even for people who come without any concrete ambition.

19. Indeed, a magnet place needn’t even be an institution; it could be an event that lasts only a matter of hours, like the Atlanta church service in the fall of 1950 where two young preachers, Ralph David Abernathy and Martin Luther King Jr., met, the first contact of a partnership that led to the American civil rights movement.

20. According to a 2010 study of thirty-five thousand papers in biomedicine that had at least one author from Harvard, the work of physically close collaborators resulted in many more citations (an indication of the importance of the research) than the work of collaborators who were farther from one another.

21. And the advantages of personal contact include experiences we can’t consciously register. In a shared space, people plug into what the psychologist Daniel Goleman has called “neural WiFi,” “a feedback loop,” he writes in Social Intelligence, “that crosses the skin-and-skull barrier between bodies.”

22. Of course, many pairs don’t have a first-meeting story that we know about—or even that they know about. Most siblings—Orville and Wilbur Wright, William and Dorothy Wordsworth, Joel and Ethan Coen—won’t remember a time they didn’t know each other.

23. The other common feature of early-intimacy pairs like siblings is that, as much as they share a world together from the start, their creative work begins only after a critical separation.

24. The point is that pairs with deeply entwined early lives must also develop disparate experiences, attitudes, or emotional styles. This is the next layer to unpeel in meeting stories. The catalyst is not similarity alone but the joining of profound similarities with profound differences.

25. For primates, familiarities signal safety—and in higher-order brains, this comfort forms the foundation for connection. People report feeling more at ease when there is similarity in factors like income, education, physical appearance, ethnicity, and race.

26. Yet the comfort of similarity is only one ingredient for creative progress. Think about an outstanding dinner party. As guests arrive to the smell of good food and the sight of drinks laid out, there’s instantly a feeling of ease. Some people know one another already—none are farther apart than two degrees.

27. Many have similar interests or backgrounds. The early part of the evening should be weighted toward familiarity, but when the dinner begins, the priority shifts from comfort to stimulation. Disparate experiences are shared; disagreements erupt.

28. We need similarities to give us ballast, and differences to make us move.

29. One study for the National Bureau of Economic Research looked at the two reasons venture capitalists choose partners: for their ability or for their affinity, such as a shared ethnic background or having worked at the same firm. Similarities of ability enhanced performance, but similarities of affinity “dramatically reduces the probability of investment success,” the study found. The problem isn’t the similarity itself. That’s fine as a foundation. The problem is when members of a group look at situations the same way, and fail to appreciate difficulties coming down the pike, loyalty and devotion can outstrip independent thinking.

30. “Bisociation”—“the sudden interlocking of two previously unrelated skills, or matrices, of thought.” This is the stuff of creative breakthroughs, which helps explain why, in the history of innovation, the outsider with critical knowledge and a fresh perspective so often plays a crucial role—why mavericks, for example, and not the pedigreed employees of Western Union or IBM, invented the telephone and the personal computer.

31. The authors of a new paradigm can’t be total strangers to the field or they won’t have the knowledge to do their work, let alone the influence to effect change. But they can’t be vested insiders either, or they’ll be constrained by convention.

32. The best climate for progress is a mix of deference and defiance. Corporate teams do well with a clear mission and a deviant who asks uncomfortable questions.

33. “The two people who have the most creative potential,” the psychologist and management consultant Diana McLain Smith told me, “are the people who are most different. The question is how do they harness that difference in the service of creativity instead of canceling each other out.”

34. Many great pairs do not much like each other at first. When C. S. Lewis initially noticed J.R.R. Tolkien, at an Oxford faculty meeting, he came home and wrote: “No harm in him: only needs a smack or so.”

35. One trope of first meetings is the endless conversation. “Steve and I just sat on the sidewalk in front of Bill [Fernandez]’s house for the longest time, just sharing stories,”

36. According to Carl Jung, when he met Sigmund Freud, they “talked uninterruptedly for thirteen hours.”

37. Both animating conflict and absorbing conversation draw on the same two elements: a shared framework to provide common ground, and sufficient difference to keep things novel and surprising.

38. The movement to true partnership is often slow and meandering.

39. Buffett slowly came around to Munger’s view that bargain hunting (which he had learned as gospel from his mentor Ben Graham) often made less sense than paying a reasonable price for a good company.

40. It’s common to find some sizable gap in time between meeting and pairing. J.R.R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis knew each other for three years before they shared their work.

41. For pairs, the most basic thing is a regular meeting time.

42. Many pairs have what we could fairly call a private language.

43. Private language emerges organically from constant exchange. Intimate pairs talk fluidly and naturally, having let go of what psychologists call “self-monitoring”—the process of watching impulses and protean thoughts, censoring some, allowing others to pass one’s lips.

44. “You just get so high-bandwidth,” Bill Gates said about talking to Steve Ballmer, his longtime deputy at Microsoft (and eventual successor). “Steve and I would just be going from talking to meeting to talking to meeting, and then I’d stay up late at night, and write him five e-mails.

45. Asymmetrical. In some pairs, one partner absorbs the other, as when a clear leader works with a deputy or a disciple takes up with a guru. This asymmetry is often signified by the nature of credit.

46. Distinct. In a second type of bond, each partner maintains a separate public identity. There may indeed be no public marker of their confluence, no unambiguous sign of union. C. S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien didn’t jointly credit any of their published work.

47. Overt. In the third type of bond, partners join together in rough equality to produce work with which both are publicly associated.

48. I’ve noticed that three archetypes recur most often—the star and the director; the liquid and the container; the dreamer and the doer—and each speaks to a significant dialectic in the creative life. 

49. Dialectic is a fancy word, but really it just describes the process by which something singular emerges out of an interaction or duality.

50. The star and the director - Many partnerships have one member in the spotlight and another offstage.

51. “But there’s a saying, ‘When two men ride the same horse, one has to be in the back.’”

52. The relationship between order and disorder has been an object of fascination from the time of the ancient Greeks, who extolled the sharp departure from clarity and coherence followed by the pleasing restoration of same. The gods Dionysus and Apollo framed this dialectic. Two sons of Zeus, they embodied the sensual, spontaneous, and emotional aspects of man (the Dionysian) and the rational, ordered, and self-disciplined aspects (the Apollonian).

53. Modern creativity research hits on the same key relation of making and breaking, challenging and refining—the “essential tension,” noted the psychologist Frank Barron, “between two seemingly opposed dispositional tendencies: the tendency toward structuring and integration and the tendency toward disruption of structure and diffusion of energy and attention.” 

54. Though I considered organizer and disrupter and maker and breaker, I settled on liquid and container as the primary way to describe this archetypal pair. In its natural state, liquid tends to disperse. Liquid-type creatives are drawn to make lateral associations rather than linear progressions. They’re often exciting, excitable characters; boundless. They embody the promise and peril of risk and are simultaneously repelled by and drawn to people who impose constraints, who can offer them shape. Without those constraints, they will spill out onto the sidewalk, evaporate in the sun.

55. Creativity is what happens when the dreamer meets the doer.

56. Many dreamer-type creators have enormous strength of character. They generate ideas, start new projects, inspire others to join them. They may also start things they can’t finish and break promises. Doer-type creators are the inverse. Productive, efficient, and dependable, they excel at finishing, have a realistic sense of what’s possible, and can set priorities and make decisions. Yet doers may struggle to be original, to initiate, to see the long view, and to identify a sense of purpose.

57. In a study of 121 major historic events—paradigm shifts in science, reform movements, and political revolutions—Frank Sulloway found that later-born children were roughly twice as likely as earlier-borns to take the radical position, while earlier-borns were more likely to defend the status quo.

58. In a meta-analysis of 8,340 participants in 24 different studies of athletic participation, later-borns were found to be 1.5 times more likely than firstborns to engage in dangerous sports such as rugby, football, and soccer, whereas firstborns and only children preferred safer sports such as swimming, tennis, and track.”

59. My friend Adam Goodheart, while writing 1861, his celebrated study of the origins of the Civil War, had the good fortune to live near the legendary nonfiction writer Richard Ben Cramer. Adam told me that, more than once, Richard gave him this advice: “Don’t be afraid to be a son of a bitch.” Meaning: Say no, ignore phone calls, hole up and do what you need to do.

60. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, “they tend to report the highest levels of creativity when walking, driving, or swimming; in other words, when involved in a semiautomatic activity that takes up a certain amount of attention, while leaving some of it free to make connections among ideas below the threshold of conscious intentionality.”

61. Certainly, direct face-offs improve performance in all manner of conditions, an effect that has been validated empirically: One study found weightlifters able to bench-press an average of two kilograms (about four and a half pounds) more when competing with another person than when facing a crowd alone. Another found that people could squeeze a handgrip twenty-one seconds longer.

62. Great work emerges from rivalry.

63. Playing with the best brings out your best, and if the other guy is gunning to beat you, that may be bad for your stress level but it’s ideal for your performance.

64. From my research, I’ve come to see three key benefits rivals offer. First, they push us to work harder. This is motivation, as basic a drive in performance as hunger is in physiology. Rivals quicken the blood, animate the spirit. Second, they model what we need to do. This is inspiration, and whether it comes from an example we want to follow, one we want to reject, or one we want to improve on, the impact is much the same. Third, they keep us in the game. This is dedication—perseverance, persistence, tenacity, the power to not just approach a task with zeal but stick with it even when we want to quit.

65. When researchers studied U.S. presidential debates, they found that in every election between 1960 and 2000, the candidate that adjusted to the other’s timbre lost the popular vote.

66. The chief advantage of power clarity is absence of strife. “Although positions within a hierarchy are born from contest,” wrote the primatologist Frans de Waal, “the hierarchical structure itself, once established, eliminates the need for further conflict. Obviously, those lower on the scale would have preferred to be higher, but they settle for the next best thing, which is to be left in peace.

67. So this is the tension: power clarity can negate conflict but stifle creativity. Along with sufficient clarity, pairs need some fluidity. Thus conflict is an organic part of the process. That’s the bad news.

68. The death knell to real collaboration, he said, is “politeness.”

69. According to the research of psychologist James W. Pennebaker at the University of Texas on the word content of correspondence, high indices of conflict are positively associated with an experience of intimacy. Think about the people you can really argue with. They’re often your dearest friends.

70. The marriage researcher John Gottman said couples likely to remain married exchange five positive remarks for every one that’s negative.

71. John Gottman found in a study that peaceful couples early in their relationships reported more marital happiness than couples who bicker. But in follow-ups three years later, the peaceful couples were far more likely to be divorced or headed for divorce, while the bickering couples tended to have worked out their troubles and stuck together.

72. Surprisingly, rigid divisions of power can actually lead to the most fluid exchanges.

73. One of my favorite end-of-relationship studies is by the sociologist Diane Felmlee. She asked people what had initially attracted them to an ex and what repelled them at the end. For about 30 percent of people, both answers were really the same, just cast in a very different light. 

74. One partner was wonderfully “strong-willed” and later obnoxiously “domineering.” A partner with a great “sense of humor” later “played too many jokes.”

75. My therapist gave me the same instruction: “Talk to yourself like you’d talk to your child.”

76. Wagner and Born concluded, “facilitates extraction of explicit knowledge and insightful behavior.” another study, by Deirdre Barrett, a professor at Harvard Medical school, asked seventy-six college students to pick a problem from their lives and focus on it each night before bed. “After one week,” Mcnerney wrote, “Barrett found that about half of the students dreamt about their problem and about a quarter dreamt a solution.”