Power Duos: Josh Shenk on the Genius of Creative Alliances

What is the chemistry of collaboration?  What enables creative pairs like Pierre and Marie Curie, James Watson and Francis Crick, or John Lennon and Paul McCartney to soar above their individual limitations and become mutual muses, inspiring one another to the highest achievements?

Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn

Jazz greats Duke Ellington (l.) and Billy Strayhorn (r.)

These are the questions that Joshua Wolf Shenk, author of the award-winning biography Lincoln’s Melancholy, is exploring in a new Slate series called Two is the Magic Number. Drawing on studies of social networks, neuroscience, psychology, health, “microanalyses” of recorded interactions, and other areas of research, Shenk looks at the dynamics behind powerhouse duos in science and art, while addressing the difficulties of talking about creative intimacy and cooperation in a culture that fetishizes the lone genius.

Shenk’s writing for The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Nation, Mother Jones, and other publications is humane, thoughtful, and provocative. His 2009 cover story for Atlantic Monthly on Harvard’s 68-year longitudinal study of aging was a profound meditation on what contributes to a happy life, and his Harper’s piece on the hypocrisy of America’s war on (some) drugs was a landmark of public candor. Shenk will use his presence on Slate and a newly-launched Facebook group to solicit input from the network about creative pairs for a book based on Two is the Magic Number.

The 39-year-old Brooklyn-based author (his brother is David Shenk, author of The Genius in All of Us) is also a creative-writing teacher and a strategist for non-profits in higher education, the arts, and mental health. I spoke with him about the role of collaboration in science, the creative dynamic at the core of the Beatles, and the ways that social networks are transforming our notions of identity.

Steve Silberman: There’s been a spate of recent research on how social networks like Facebook and Twitter can facilitate behavioral change. If your friends in a social network go on a diet or quit smoking, you’re more likely to succeed doing the same. Organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous and Weight Watchers are successful, in part, because they mobilize the compassion and expectations of a group to support the intentions of the individual. Why is there so much interest now in the science of social influence?

Joshua Wolf Shenk: The new research is growing organically out of the culture of the Web. Psychologist John Cacioppo and his colleague Gary Berntson coined the term “social neuroscience” in 1992. At first, people thought Cacioppo was nuts; he couldn’t find a way to get through to them. Then the Internet came into our lives, and suddenly he had an effective metaphor for the ways we are influenced, motivated, and changed by our webs of relations. Social networks like Facebook have opened our minds to think about who we are and what we do in new ways.

There’s another, much more mundane piece of technology that played a pivotal role in this research: videotape. Before the 1970s, social researchers could film interactions, but it was cumbersome and costly. When it became cheap and easy to capture social exchanges on camera — and slow them down to watch them frame-by-frame — videotape proved a boon to relationship studies. Some of the early pioneering work looked at the most foundational bond at all: the bond between mother and child. It’s obvious that mothers are affected by their infants and vice versa, but the research showed that the influence isn’t sequential, but simultaneous. It’s not that the baby smiles, the mother smiles back, and the baby smiles wider. Even before a baby’s smile becomes visible, the mother is already reacting, her own smile is already forming. There’s a primitive exchange that goes down to a neurological level. This lasts into adulthood. So there’s an experimental foundation now to demonstrate how our cognitive structures morph when we’re very close with other people, so that our ideas of “self” literally expand to include another person.

Madonna and Child, Raphael, 1503

Madonna and Child (detail), Raphael, 1503

Emotions themselves, which we think of ourselves and others as “having” (“I am angry; he looks sad”) are actually “peopled” from the start. To me, this is the most profound aspect of the research — that we’re so deeply intertwined with other people, our very concept of self needs revision. Cacioppo says we’re ready for a Copernican revolution in psychology and neuroscience, and I think he’s right.

Silberman: Most great accomplishments are the product of creative alliances, but press accounts usually favor the Great Man (and more rarely, the Great Woman) scenario, in part because people like to emulate — or at least read about — inspiring leaders. How can science writers get beyond clichéed narratives of the lone visionary?

Shenk: It’s a problem that ranges across disciplines, but there’s a peculiar bias in the academy that affects science disproportionately. I recently asked the chair of Harvard’s history of science department, Anne Harrington, for her thoughts on creative pairs, and she told me that I could analyze virtually any scientific accomplishment and find collaboration behind it. At the same time, tenure committees insist on looking at the distinct, original contribution of individual scientists, which provokes a farcical fictional exercise in which people have to try to extract themselves from their tangled webs of collaboration. No matter how collaborative an academic paper is, there can only be one author in that lead spot. Long-time collaborators often trade off, which is fine as a workaround, but speaks to a myopia in institutional assessment.

Marie and Pierre Curie

Marie and Pierre Curie in their lab

If anyone should have a good foundation of understanding the collaborative nature of the creative process in science, it’s science writers. Steven Johnson’s new book on innovation, Where Good Ideas Come From, is a great place to start. I also really like Keith Sawyer’s book Group Genius. And John Cacioppo has an outstanding general introduction to his research in Loneliness. (That’s more about psychological and physical health than creativity, but it’s really eye-opening.) The bottom line here is that we’re social animals, everything we do is rooted in social exchange on some level, and our big ideas — even when we experience them alone, in a flash — are always generated by complex exchanges.

The next step would be to get straight about the history of science — to look at Thomas Edison’s webs of influence, and to understand how Albert Einstein really worked. Far from our images of Einstein as dreamily communing with the heavens alone at his desk, he worked his ideas out in conversation. From more recent history, look at how the technical and creative breakthroughs at a company like Apple proceed from collaboration  — though it’s hard to know what really goes on between, say, Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ive.

Jonathan Ive and Steve Jobs

Apple chief designer Jonathan Ive (l.) and founder/CEO Steve Jobs (r.)

It won’t be easy to adopt this new way of thinking, because we’re drawn to the Great Man story on a very fundamental level. I’d love to hear more about this from the perspective of evolutionary biology — the way our brains evolved to look out for the alpha male or female, the pack leader, the headman of a tribe. We also prefer to think of the isolated genius and flashing moments of insight because it feeds into our fantasies of what we could become: Maybe tomorrow I’ll be at my desk and an idea that overthrows the foundations of physics… will just come to me.

Silberman: What do people often misunderstand about the nature of the extraordinarily effective collaboration between John Lennon and Paul McCartney?

Lennon/McCartney 1965

Two former skiffle musicians from Liverpool, 1965

Shenk: No matter how much we know that these guys produced some of the most significant art in the history of mankind; that they did it together; that neither one matched that quality of sophistication, beauty, and lasting power on their own; we still insist on looking at them as individuals. We keep asking: Which are the “John” songs? What are the “Paul” songs? Who was the “real” genius? The last question in particular is a silly one. The first two questions aren’t irrelevant — it’s interesting to see who contributed what lines to which songs. But it all misses the most important point about the collaboration between John and Paul, which is that their relationship was an entity unto itself. They didn’t just add themselves together. They affected each other, shaped each other, changed each other  — and, ultimately, merged with each other to create a third entity: the Lennon/McCartney relationship. I’ll have much more on these guys in Slate.  They’ll also be big characters in my book.

Silberman: Which collaborations have been most fruitful in your life?

Shenk: Like a lot of writers, I can be pretty awkward around people. It often takes me a long time to recognize basic dynamics that people with better social intuition can pick up on right away. One of the things that motivates me to study creative pairs is to see if I can learn to recognize chemistry when it happens, and to cultivate and sustain such connections in my future. I’ve never been able to work well with a research assistant or intern; I either send them off on some crazily vague quest or give them such micro-tasks that they’re bored out of their minds. I think one of the basic things with me is fear of losing control — of both the process and the results. Basic ego stuff.

Joshua Wolf Shenk

Josh Shenk in the West Village, NYC, 2009

Silberman: Which collaborations have you found most surprising?

Shenk: Many great collaborations remain underground. It blew my mind to find out that great surfers have “board shapers” who custom-craft their boards, and that the chemistry between a great shaper and a great surfer plays a huge role in the surfer’s career. If you’re a really serious surfer, you just know this, the way a jazz musician knows about the role of an arranger, or the way a writer knows about literary agents. In their own fields, people have a working knowledge of collaborations that don’t spread into the culture at large.  That’s why I need to hear from a variety of voices, and this is great foundation for a community conversation online. It’s going to be a big experiment for me. I’m used to the old-media model — I talk, you listen. But we’re in a new world now where ideas and idea-makers are enmeshed in much more intricate ways.

Silberman:  Poet Walt Whitman declared in Leaves of Grass, “I am vast, I contain multitudes.” The research you’re planning to write about indicates that, in a practical sense, we all do. Our best ideas emerge in dialogue with others’ ideas. What are the implications of this notion of the multiple nature of self for psychotherapy, which often focuses exclusively on the individual?

Walt Whitman (l.) and Pete Doyle (r.)

Poet Walt Whitman (l.) and companion Peter Doyle (r.)

Shenk: I think the implications are profound and fundamental — not only for psychotherapy, but for our way of addressing when things go wrong in human life, as well as when things go right. Our models of medicine and mental health are obsessively focused on the individual. We’ve come to believe that virtually everything we need to know about us can be located inside our skulls, like we’re spacemen floating around alone. Of course people have internal and individual problems. But most of what affects us has to do with relationships and how they’re working or not working. The idea of fixing the brain chemistry of the individual with medication is fine as far as it goes, but the quickest and most powerful way to affect the brain is through interpersonal chemistry — positive, helpful, affirming, mutual exchanges.

The most famous school of psychological healing in the 20th century is psychotherapy, but I’d reckon that the most effective is AA and other 12-step programs, which are social by nature. They focus on drawing an individual out of an obsession with his or her self, and into a sense of connection and meaning and service. Individual psychotherapy can be fantastic, but it can lock you into an isolating loop. By far the best portrait of this is David Foster Wallace’s story “The Depressed Person.” You can find it online [PDF link] in Harper’s and also in his collection Brief Interviews With Hideous Men. If you want to see the absolute pernicious pinnacle of an obsessive individualism, read this story.

Silberman: You write in Slate about the profound effect that Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged has had on the American psyche, helping to implant the notion that individual choice is the foundation of our society, rather than unity in a shared sense of common good. The day after Glenn Beck’s allegedly non-partisan rally in Washington, Beck employed the Fox network to hype the notion that President Obama is secretly a Marxist rather than a moderate Democrat. How did a nation founded on “We, the people” become so terrified of the idea of collectivity?

Tea Party Signs

Sign of the times at a Tea Party, 2010

Shenk: We radically underestimate how much our cognition is driven by stories. The right wing thrives based on a very primitive and extremely effective narrative — a story so compelling that it’s hard to resist, even if you have a thousand legitimate objections. The story has a hero, and that hero is basically anyone who subscribes to the story; it’s “real” Americans; it’s “us.” And there’s a clear villain.

The storyline is simple: “I”/”we” are a special, God-blessed people, who are peace-loving, generous, and good, and we’re just trying to mind our own business. But “those” people — the lefties, the homosexuals, the commies, the Muslims — just won’t leave us alone. We’re in our castle, happy here, but they keep throwing pots of flaming oil at us. So no matter how peace-loving and generous we are, we have to fight. To defend ourselves. To survive. We have to “take the fight to them,” because they won’t leave us alone.

This is actually a very collective way of thinking, one that connects to our social brains. But it has also undermined our understanding of social networks, because one fundamental divide between “us” and “them” in this story is that “they” want to lasso the cowboy and put him in some kind of work camp. Because the story is predicated on “us” versus “them,” it has to emphasize division and difference.

One of the reasons that liberals are in trouble is that they haven’t come up with a narrative that can match their opponents’ narrative. A successful liberal narrative will have to draw on some other primal, archetypal dimension of the way we think, such as how we yearn to be enmeshed in affirming, sustaining communities where together we can accomplish much more than any of us alone.

Silberman: How can we use the emerging collaborative model of self to make our lives better?

Shenk: Very few of us are going to do work on par with Lennon and McCartney or Watson and Crick, but we can learn valuable things from these epic pairs. Both of the standard clichés about relationships are true: opposites attract, and birds of a feather flock together. Great pairings generally come from people who are either intensely similar or intensely different.

Ricky Ricardo and Lucille Ball

Ricky Ricardo and Lucille Ball of I Love Lucy

You can’t work creatively with people without dealing well with conflict and tension. People in very close, very effective collaborative relationships have told me that they wanted to use specific sharp-edged implements (in one case a knife, in the other, a fireplace poker) to stab their partners in particular places. Great collaborations that generate real heat are also often going to generate real pain. There’s no way around that  but to move through it, learn to tolerate it, and be expanded by it.

All ambitious people want to “explode” — to get dramatically better, to achieve more success, to reach new heights. More reliably than any other factor, intense chemical reactions with other people lead to this kind of growth. But those connections also involve fiery change — letting go of our old comforts and patterns, even of our very self-concept and identity.

Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe

Photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (l.) and musician Patti Smith (r.)

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