Shenk, J.W. “The Powers of Two.” Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, NY: 2014.

Review: Shenk, J.W. “The Powers of Two.” Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, NY: 2014.

The dust cover says,” A lyrical, revelatory synthesis of cultural history and social psychology that shows how one-to-one collaboration drives creative process.” It continues, explaining that Shenk weaves together the lives of creative people—twos–like Lennon and McCartney, Jobs and Wozniak, the Curies, and many others who exemplify his theme.

Though the cover says “two is the magic number,” Shenk is more tolerant. He does say, “The pair is the primary creative unit.” But further on he also says, The “creative process” itself is
dichotomous, and characterized by push-and-pull between two entities, “whether those entities are two people, two groups of people, or even as we’ll see, a single person and the voice inside her head.” (p. xxiii) Of course, we agree with that, too.

Creative pairs go through six stages: meeting, confluence, dialectics, distance, the infinite game, interruption.: I take the liberty of re-defining (thinking somewhat “otherwise,” these stages.)
Meeting: finding “something” to cause them to want to meet again.
Confluence: deciding to “work together.”
Dialectics: defining roles and a “pecking order” for tasks
Distance: setting rules for working together
The Infinite Game: working together with determined purposes
Interruptions: knowing when they need to re-identify themselves (p. xxv)

Shenk confesses that he is a “loner” who observes and appreciates the powers of two but has not himself partaken, though he seems to want to claim he and his editor were in that “zone.” Of course, he accepts his status of (mostly) being outside the category of “twos” he is describing, and so with the rest of us. That’s not a bad thing for someone who is describing objectively what he believes the individuals themselves are not likely to do. Those of us who “think otherwise” can relate.

Reading the descriptions is a great experience; Shenk puts us together with the “twos” in real situations often described by themselves. Getting into the heads of people like “Crick and Watson, Crosby and Nash, The Dalai Lama and his secretary T.G. Tethong, M.L. King and R. Abernathy and almost two dozen others is an exhilarating experience. To have it, you need to read the book.

Here are some gems that relate to the theme of this blog. They provide, in themselves, implications that can, and have filled volumes.
Karl Marx: (quoted by Tony Kushner) “Marx was right: The smallest indivisible human unit is two people, not one; one is a fiction.” (Of course Marx and Engels—not included in this book—were also a “twos” who wrote the Communist Manifesto and other things as well.
Joan Didion said “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Story creation is often a response to the need to organize complex ideas that cannot otherwise be easily defined.
Csikszentmihalyi is quoted: “Creativity results from the interaction of a system composed of three elements…symbolic rules….a person who brings novelty….and experts who recognize and validate the innovation.”
Jerry Seinfeld says to George, “We all want the Hand,” meaning the “upper hand.” This begins an explanation of how the “twos” work to get their own “status” clarified in the power struggle that always occurs between them.
Martin Buber, explaining that his “I and Thou” should have been “I and You,” and the encounter is with another person, who THEN provides some interaction with the Divine.
Another concept involves the studies of interactions among individuals where voice levels reveal that the dominant person’s “voice level” is the one that is used by both persons in a power “two.” Still another is the ability of the power duo to almost read each others’ minds, and the willingness of many of these “twos” to work together despite not really liking or even respecting the other.
These ideas are, of course, not completely new. However, understanding the effect of voice levels, tone, and the “vibes” that cause persons who work closely to understand each other can be very useful to educators who want to develop new ways of teaching and learning.

Beginning Part V, Shenk quotes Voltaire: “If there were only two men in the world, how would they get on? They would help one another…flatter…slander…fight…make it up;…they could neither live together nor do without one another.” Not exactly new information for most “couples” of any kind, is it? Then, we get a quote from the film “The Third Man.” Harry Lime’s lines “In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love. They had five hundred years of peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock.”
In my opinion, both of these quotations are mistaken and over-the-top self—serving enthusiasm and cheerleading. Voltaire’s seems to be, at bottom, sexist (assuming a role for women we no longer believe is correct) and cynically foolish (who would be there to hear the slander, why would flattery be necessary,etc.). And the Swiss—almost every rational person respects them for their persistence, consistency, courage and ability to survive the madness of the past 500 years.

Finally, my thoughts on theme of “The Powers of Two:” that collaboration among two persons drives creative success. This book has much to recommend it. Most of all it explains that the creative accomplishments of these talented people were possible ONLY because the pairs who made them worked very hard to cooperate and learned the difficult process of sharing their skills and subordinating their egos. HOW that happens is more complex than most of us can imagine. Shenk has provided us with a deeper understanding of the process.


John H. Langer, JD, Ed.D. Retired Federal agency manger, former professor of education, public school administrator, and writer of a number of articles and publications on education, public affairs, substance abuse and social issues. In writing a book on attention and memory as it relates to education, this blog is helping to focus attention n current issues, and hopefully, add something useful as well.

Leave a Comment