Two is the magic number: a new science of creativity.

Why two is the magic number. 
Sept. 14 2010 7:00 AM

Two Is the Magic Number

A new science of creativity.

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But ignorance alone can't be entirely responsible for the myth of the individual creator. At times, the myth is so pervasive, and so wrong, that it points to a basic problem in our thinking. Consider Emily Dickinson, who in the popular mind personifies the lone genius, composing poetry in the stillness of her room, clad in monastic white, only occasionally lowering her basket from her bedroom window.

But Dickinson was actually deeply engaged with a number of contemporaries, who were vital to her work. Some, like Thomas Wentworth Higginson, are at least acknowledged (more so in the wake of Brenda Wineapple's book White Heat.)

But popular history has lost, and literary history has only lately recovered, the essential, decades-long bond between Dickinson and her sister-in-law Susan Huntington Dickinson. As Martha Nell Smith and Ellen Louise Hart show in Open Me Carefully, the poet was on fire from within but her connection to Susan—whom she called "Imagination" itself, and a source of knowledge second only to Shakespeare—helped fuel the flames.

The shift in understanding creativity is well underway. The stereotypes of miraculous breakthrough moments—and the incessant drive to locate them in the head of epic individuals—are slowly yielding to a portrait of complex, meandering, inherently social paths toward innovation. Notable pioneers of this thinking include the psychologists Keith Sawyer and Vera John-Steiner and the popular writers Steven Johnson, author of the forthcoming Where Good Ideas Come From and my brother, David Shenk (it's true, not just sibling love), with The Genius in All of Us.

Even historically, it's not as though the idea of the individual hero has lacked for dissidents. Critics from Herbert Spencer to Howard Zinn have challenged the "great man" theory of history, emphasizing cultures instead (in Zinn's case, the culture of ordinary people). A more extreme challenge to the self-centered worldview comes from process philosophy, a school inspired by Alfred North Whitehead, which emphasizes exchange and inter-dependency—not only among people but between species; and not only moment to moment but across time.

In the best and most problematic ways, process thought makes the head spin. It feels right to many people, when they consider it, that truth is dynamic, not static; that we create one another; that our "selves" converge in the present from a relationship to the past and future. That human creativity stems from culture is hard to deny. Just look at the transcendentalists or the Bloomsbury circle—or the famous, peculiar cultures at Apple or Google—or the intense ferment in the scientists who split the atom.

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But myths take hold for a reason. It's easy and satisfying to reduce a big, complex cast to a single character—giving Edison sole credit for the light bulb, or Freud for psychoanalysis.

Tiger Woods and Steve Williams. Click image to expand.
Steve Williams and Tiger Woods

The human mind depends on narrative, characters, and concrete action, while the idea of interdependence easily dissolves into abstraction. Say, for example, we trace the influences on Einstein, and draw concentric circles around him, first with his immediate peers (including Michele Besso, with whom Einstein worked out the theory of relativity in conversation), then to the scientific circle of his era, then to the influences of the previous generation. Where do we stop—with the ancient Greeks? Even if you acknowledge the depth and breadth of Einstein's connections, it's near irresistible to call him a genius and go on your way. Give an audience a big enough ensemble cast, their eyes will naturally seek a star.

1 + 1 = Infinity

To take on the myth of the lone genius, we need not only to draw on the best science and history, we also need to focus on the fundamental social unit: the pair. As Tony Kushner writes in his notes to Angels in America, "the smallest indivisible unit is two people, not one; one is a fiction." Buckminster Fuller got at the same idea when he wrote that "[u]nity is plural and, at minimum, is two."

In the sphere of romantic love, most of us already accept the primacy of pairs. And much of the new relationship science is focused on romantic and personal intimacy. But love, at its essence, is private and inscrutable. Long-bickering couples often outlast their placid neighbors, and this oddity layers on top of another problem: What's our unit of measure for "good" relationships? Is it fiery passion? Is it duration? Is it the number of kids who go to the Ivy Leagues?

With creativity, by contrast, we start with a public text that can be subjected to reasonable (if not perfect) tests. Whether or not you like the Beatles' music, it's perfectly straightforward that most people accept their work as novel, useful, and beautiful.  

So this is the task of this series, to see how creative relationships work. I start with a few assumptions.

First, we can't answer the question with theory. Though science offers some context and insights, we need to look at real lives and see what lessons they offer and what patterns they suggest.