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The Power of Two: why pairs may be more creative than lone geniuses

Stashed in: Steve Jobs, Founders, Creativity, Beatles!, MLK, Forever Alone

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Our culture is obsessed with the lone genius, but that might be because most cultural critics are WRITERS -- the most forever-alone of all callings. In most other fields, like the tech business, duos do better.

A good pair makes each other better:

The lone-genius myth prevents us from grappling with a series of paradoxes about creative pairs: that distance doesn’t impede intimacy, and is often a crucial ingredient of it; that competition and collaboration are often entwined. Only when we explore this terrain can we grasp how such pairs as Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, William and Dorothy Wordsworth, and Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy all managed to do such creative work.

The anecdote in the article about "Don't Let Me Down" is an illustration of what the marriage expert John Gottman calls “repair”—a return to the strength of a partnership that tempers the effects of its weaknesses.

Great Beatles anecdote:

n the fall of 1966, during a stretch of nine weeks away from the Beatles, John Lennon wrote a song. He was in rural Spain at the time, on the set of a movie called How I Won the War, but the lyrics cast back to an icon of his boyhood in Liverpool: the Strawberry Field children’s home, whose sprawling grounds he’d often explored with his gang and visited with his Aunt Mimi. In late November, the Beatles began work on the song at EMI Studios, on Abbey Road in London. After four weeks and scores of session hours, the band had a final cut of “Strawberry Fields Forever.” That was December 22.

On December 29, Paul McCartney brought in a song that took listeners back to another icon of Liverpool: Penny Lane, a traffic roundabout and popular meeting spot near his home. This sort of call-and-response was no anomaly. He and John, Paul said later, had a habit of “answering” each other’s songs. “He’d write ‘Strawberry Fields,’ ” Paul explained. “I’d go away and write ‘Penny Lane’ … to compete with each other. But it was very friendly competition.”

It’s a famous anecdote. Paul, of course, was stressing the collaborative nature of his partnership with John (he went on to note that their competition made them “better and better all the time”). But in this vignette, as in so many from the Beatles years, it’s easy to get distracted by the idea of John and Paul composing independently. The notion that the two need to be understood as individual creators, in fact, has become the contemporary “smart” take on them. “Although most of the songs on any given Beatles album are usually credited to the Lennon-McCartney songwriting team,” Wikipedia declares, “that description is often misleading.” Entries on the site about individual Beatles songs take care to assert their “true” author. Even the superb rock critic Greg Kot once succumbed to this folly. John and Paul “shared songwriting credits but little else,” he wrote in 1990, “and their ‘partnership’ was more of a competition than a collaboration.”

Kot made that observation in a review of Beatlesongs, by William J. Dowlding—a high-water mark of absurdity in the analysis of Lennon-McCartney. Dowlding actually tried to quantify their distinct contributions, giving 84.55 credits to John—“the winner,” he declared—and 73.65 to Paul. (His tally also included 22.15 credits for George Harrison, 2.7 for Ringo Starr, and 0.45 for Yoko Ono. For a few lines in the song “Julia,” Dowlding gave 0.05 credits to the Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran.)

Though the White Album recording sessions were often tense and unpleasant, they yielded an album that is among the best in history.

John was the badass older brother Paul never had. Paul was a charming sidekick who could do something rare: keep up with John.

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