Is the lone genius a total myth?

Joseph Stromberg
Vox Media

The conventional view of history is filled with lone geniuses: men and women who, through talent and inspiration, achieved feats no one else had before. Pablo Picasso. Vincent van Gogh. Albert Einstein. Emily Dickinson.

Joshua Wolf Shenk, an author and essayist, has a provocative response to this idea: all these lone geniuses were just the more well-known halves of collaborative duos. In his new book Powers of Two, he argues that the real driver of human creativity isn't the lone genius, but the partnership.

the real driver of human creativity isn't the lone genius, but the partnership

This can take all sorts of forms. There are the obvious partnerships — like Orville and Wilbur Wright, or Marie and Pierre Curie, or John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

But there are other cases where collaboration more subtly powered success.  Picasso was driven to his heights of creativity through a friendly rivalry with Matisse. Van Gogh once told his brother Theo, when discussing his paintings, that "you will have been as much their creator as I, because the two of us are making them together."

After struggling for years trying to develop his special theory of relativity, Einstein got his old classmate Michele Besso a job at the Swiss patent office — and after "a lot of discussions with him," Einstein said, "I could suddenly comprehend the matter." Even Dickinson, a famous recluse, wrote hundreds of poems specifically for people she voraciously corresponded with by letter.

The idea isn't that all of these situations represent equal partnerships — but that the lone genius is a total myth, and all great achievements involve some measure of collaboration. I spoke with Shenk to hear more about his idea.

Joseph Stromberg: Where did this idea first come from?

Joshua Wolf Shenk: My first impulse was to try to understand this thing we call "chemistry." I often have this experience of walking into a party and just locking eyes with someone, and we start talking, and all of a sudden I feel smarter, a funnier, and sharper than I was before, and it's clearly something between me and this other person. So I thought one way to get at that would be to look at famous pairs — John Lennon and Paul McCartney, and Watson and Crick, the Curies, and other people who I'd heard of but didn't know much about.

I wanted to look at a lot of examples, so I was voracious from the start. I'd think, "What's the deal with Vincent van Gogh and his brother Theo?" — because Theo's often described as his "supporter," so I wondered what the full story was. And I remembered that Martin Luther King, in his last speech, called this guy Ralph Abernathy his best friend in the world. So what was that relationship? And eventually, it seemed to me that the interaction between people wasn't an isolated phenomenon, but really the fundamental engine of the creative process.

Vincent and Theo van Gogh's graves, side by side. (Yannbee/Wikimedia Commons)

And a lot of the time, we haven't been intimate with that, because so much of the creative exchange gets hidden. It happens offstage, and isn't a part of history. Sometimes that's due to prejudice, or ignorance, and sometimes it's because, if things go well, you just don't hear about the second person. If you're listening to the radio, you don't want to hear anything about the producer.

So at that point, the project took on a different quality. It wasn't about the exceptional cases, with two people creating The Beatles or co-discovering DNA, but the story of creativity and collaboration as a fundamental phenomenon.

JS: So if the interaction between people really is the key engine of creativity, how did the "lone genius" myth come into being? Why do we so often think of creativity coming from one person, instead of two?

JWS: The lone genius myth grew up in the Enlightenment, and was burnished during the Romantic period. And then, in the West, it was further fueled by the Cold War — and this affected science, because at the time, you really did not want to be talking about how reality was communal. In Cold War America, that was not a good way to get grants or get tenure.

For instance, there was a developmental psychologist named Lev Vygotsky, who was Russian, and we now know that he had a lot of things right about how human beings connect. But he was not an easy guy to subscribe to in the 1960s or '70s.

'the lone genius myth grew up in the enlightenment, and was burnished during the romantic period'

Eventually, though, a lot of these factors changed. Women get into the sciences more and more, and that's critical, because women have tended to ask questions about relationships that men tend to push aside. And finally, there's the phenomenon of the internet, which is profound in the way it gets people thinking about networks, and serves as a powerful metaphor. So all of a sudden we can conceive of this marvelously complex sort of connection.

Now, it's still very hard to wrap your mind around the idea of a network, and it to your day to day life. The virtue of looking at partnerships is that it's a network reduced down to its smallest possible unit. And that lets you tell stories, and introduce characters, and see how this shows up in your daily life.

JS: You uncovered lots of pairs, in moments of history that we usually think of as triumphs of lone genius. Can you tell me a bit about those?

JWS: It's really a parlor game. Name the famous name, and then you find the person behind them. It happens over and over.

One person I looked at was Charlie Munger. He's Warren Buffett's primary muse, collaborator, and business partner, starting from the late 1950s. Buffett has said, "Charlie does the talking, I just move my lips."

Theo van Gogh was not his brother Vincent's supporter — he was his brother's partner. They both thought they made that work together, although they obviously had different roles. Theo wasn't dipping his brush in the paint, but he was doing critical work.

Wilhelm Fliess was this eccentric ear, nose, and throat doctor who had this feverish relationship with Sigmund Freud. It was out of that exchange that the early psychoanalytic theory emerged.

Charlie Munger (left) and Warren Buffett. (Photo by Eric Francis/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

It just goes on and on. And there aware of many situations it seems to be happening, but we don't know for sure. There's the story of Einstein and this guy Michele Besso, an engineer. Einstein was really enamored of him, and arranged for him to work in the patent office with him, and they would take these long walks, and there's a quote from Einstein where he said, "Trying a lot of discussions with him, I could suddenly comprehend the matter." And it was in that period that Einstein created relativity theory. And in that paper, he thanked one person: Michele Besso.

Now, we don't know what they said, we don't have recordings. It's easy to say, "Come on, it's Einstein, he might as well have been talking to a tree." But he wasn't talking to a tree, he was talking to this one guy, and this guy was special to him. It's very intriguing, and makes you want to learn more.

JS: Do you think there are any cases where you have acts of remarkable creativity coming out of just one person?

JWS: There are many places where I thought that was probably true, and I went and tested it — like, "What was the deal with Emily Dickinson? Wasn't she alone in her room?"

But she was a paradox. She was not uninterested in people, she was overly interested in people. She was enormously passionate, writing hundreds of poems for particular people, and sending them to them. Thousands of letters.

Emily Dickinson. (Yale University Manuscripts & Archives Digital Images Database)

It's not always strictly a partnership, per se. The big story is broad: it's a story of dialogue. But it has many different manifestations.

I will say there is one case that I have not cracked. It's the story of Henry Darger, who was this famously reclusive artist who created all this work that was found after his death. It makes me think, "Is he the exception to this story?" But I say that over and over again about potential exceptions, and each time, I've found a key collaboration.

JS: You wrote about one particularly interesting manifestation — cases where rivals end up as collaborators. How does that work?

JWS: Yeah, those are really interesting cases. To start, some sort of competition is essential. The easiest way to look at that is to look at people who are actually trying to beat each other.

For instance, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. They don't regard themselves as collaborators at all. Each guy wants to be on top. They didn't just want to win — they wanted to hurt the other guy. Larry Bird talks about relishing how, after his team won, just how wounded Magic would be.

But when you widen the lens slightly, you see that they started in the NBA together, and when Magic retired, Bird announced his retirement soon afterward. And in a sense, they did this great piece of work together. They essentially saved the NBA, and they made each other, as players. They're both pretty clear and open about that now. They pushed each other to these great heights.

Larry Bird (left) and Magic Johnson, prior to the 1991 NBA season. (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

This is a really obvious case of rivalry. But let's move to something more subtle: art. Something very similar happened between Matisse and Picasso. They built on each other, trying to top each other. They'd see the other one do something, and learn from it, trying to integrate it.

And that same oppositional energy can happen inside a partnership, like with Lennon and McCartney. As George Martin said, they were like two guys tugging on a rope — smiling but pulling with all their might. There was pleasure in it, and they were part of a joint enterprise, but they also really wanted to be on top. The field in which that game was played was the single — each guy wanted to have the A side for each album. And I go into some detail about the "Strawberry Fields Forever"/"Penny Lane" situation, and the beautiful ending to that. Normally they'd send out singles with an A side, which told DJs to play that song first, but occasionally they'd do a double A side, basically saying that both these songs were hits. And they did that for "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane."

McCartney (left) and Lennon, in 1966. (Photo by Gunter Zint/K & K Ulf Kruger OHG/Redferns)

But this kind of competition doesn't need to be as fierce. It can be done with a lot of love. Very often, pairs will say to me, "we're not competitive, we're not like that." But if you look carefully, they might not be trying to beat the other person, but there is this passion. Like, Sheila Heti and Margaux Williamson are a painter and writer who regard themselves as partners. And Sheila said to me, "When Margaux does great work, I do feel like I need to step up. I need to do better and work harder, because I want to be as good as her." It may be very subtly and harmoniously integrated into the rhythms of your life, but it's still an oppositional energy that fuels both people.

JS: What can the average person do with all this? What do I do if I want to harness the power of collaboration?

JWS: That's an important question, because I think it's really important to understand this isn't just in textbooks and famous people — this is a universal phenomenon.

It shows up at all levels — say, between the great administrator of a preschool and a great teacher, who's been there forever and is technically the employee but is really running the show. Or in college classrooms, where you have a professor and a student, where the professor is filling up the tank of the student, but also discovering new things by the way the student challenges him or her.

'this is a universal phenomenon. it shows up at all levels.'

If you do want to find a new collaborative, I have one piece of concrete advice that comes out of the research on this. It's simple, but people tend to meet initially because they're pursuing their interests, in a place where people who share their interests congregate.

So, for for a writer, for instance, it could be going to graduate school, or moving to New York City, or going to Moth slams, or writing for Vox. This is a critical first step, and then once you're in this place with this sort of shared goal, the next move is to look for the person who challenges you the most. They may be the most different from you. They're the person who quickens your blood. It may be exciting, or it could even be unpleasant, a little like getting an electric shock. The key thing to pay attention to is the work, the ideas. You may find this person drives you crazy, but if you're thinking sharper and doing things more originally than you were before, that is a relationship you want to return to.

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