Book review: Powers of Two

The book junks the doing-it-all-alone tales and argues cogently in favour of interdependence

Powers of Two - By Joshua Wolf Shenk Powers of Two - By Joshua Wolf Shenk

Powers of Two

By Joshua Wolf Shenk

Eamon Dolan Books/ Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Pages: 339; Price: Rs 1,354

Have you heard of Mahadev Desai? To some, this name might ring a bell, but most would probably ask: Mahadev Desai, who? Desai, incidentally, was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi's closest aide.

Joshua Wolf Shenk, in his book Powers of Two, argues that much of Gandhi's image as a solitary hero who rattled the British empire was carved because of his pairing with Desai and the support he gave as a key deputy "who acted as Gandhi's stenographer, confidant, interpreter, ghostwriter, editor, and all-around aide."

Shenk says that even before Gandhi woke up each morning, Desai would be ready with the day's plans. "After Gandhi retired, Desai made notes for the movement's official record. According to Desai's son, Gandhi would often examine Desai's texts and make only one single change at the end, he would cross out the initials M.D. (Mahadev Desai) and replace it with M.K.G. (Mohandas K. Gandhi)."

Much of creativity and genius, and the success of creative people, is because of the support from another person. "The pair is the primary creative unit," says Shenk.

The book is replete with examples of creative pairs who succeeded because they worked together, argued, fought and, even at times, broke up. Be it Paul McCartney and John Lennon of the Beatles fame; painter Vincent Van Gogh and his brother Theo; ballerina Suzanne Farrell and her choreographer, George Balanchine; co-founders of Google, Larry Page and Sergey Brin; Apple's founding duo Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak or investors Charlie Munger and Warren Buffett, Shenk throws immense light on how the relationship worked.

Shenks dumps the theory of a 'lone genius'. "The lone genius idea has become our dominant view of creativity not because of its inherent strength - in fact, it neglects and obscures the social qualities of innovation - but because it makes for a good story." Our "genius-obsessed culture" ignores interdependence. In fact, it is interdependence that propels people to greater heights, Shenk argues. Even in this wired age, great work comes out of person-to-person contact. Perhaps the most striking endorsement for direct interaction comes from the very companies who profit from virtual exchange. Yahoo insists that employees work in the office (rather than telecommute). When asked how many Google employees telecommute, the company's chief financial officer, Partick Pichette, replied:  "As few as possible."

But how does the chemistry between pairs work? Among other things, pairing involves building confidence, trust and having faith in each other. "In the final step of bonding, after presence leads to confidence, and confidence settles into trust, trust elevates into faith. Out of faith can come a place of true abandon and intense exchange," says Shenk.

Shenk says his work tries to "understand the nature of creative dichotomies as well as the dichotomous nature of the creative process itself. This process is characterised by a push-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." With rich and painstaking research, he brings huge insight on how creativity and genius is not a solo effort, but most often teamwork. For all you know, your spouse could be the one helping you achieve greatness, as did the pairing of Marie and Pierre Curie.