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The Myth of the Lone Genius

by Vinay Jain The Myth of the Lone Genius

Our culture tends to lionize the brilliant individual working night and day to produce world-changing results. But what if we can learn more about achieving great things by looking at creative partnerships instead of at the individual?

Writing in The Atlantic, Joshua Wolf Shenk analyzes the relationship between John Lennon and Paul McCartney, the most commercially and critically successful songwriting duo of the twentieth century. In the decades since the breakup of the Beatles (and the attendant dissolution of the Lennon-McCartney partnership), many music critics and biographers have asserted that, although Lennon and McCartney shared songwriting credit, they largely worked independently. It was rare — particularly in the later Beatle years — for them to truly write a song “eyeball to eyeball,” as Lennon once put it.

Taking on these critics and biographers, Shenk writes:

The attempts to pick apart the Lennon-McCartney partnership reveal just how misleading that [lone-genius] myth can be, because John and Paul were so obviously more creative as a pair than as individuals, even if at times they appeared to work in opposition to each other. 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.

Shenk makes the crucial point that Lennon and McCartney didn’t need to write songs with each other in order to influence and push one another, because in a sense they were writing for each other. Each valued the other’s opinion and sought his approval; their friendly rivalry made them better individually — and together more than the sum of their parts. There must be a reason, after all, that virtually nothing either Lennon or McCartney wrote in his solo career surpasses what each supposedly wrote “alone” as a Beatle.

This creative/competitive dynamic between Lennon and McCartney drove the Beatles’ remarkable artistic evolution. What other band could have gone, in just five years, from “I Want to Hold Your Hand” to “Why Don’t We Do it in the Road?” A song by either Lennon or McCartney was an implicit challenge to the other to try to top it. Through their friendly competition, the pair waged an astonishingly successful war against a common enemy — creative complacency. 

This creative/competitive dynamic between Lennon and McCartney drove the Beatles’ remarkable artistic evolution. What other band could have gone, in just five years, from “I Want to Hold Your Hand” to “Why Don’t We Do it in the Road?” 

Shenk offers a powerful reminder that great things are never accomplished by one person alone. Steve Jobs was justly given a lot of credit for the birth and later rebirth of Apple, but the company could never have gotten started without Steve Wozniak, the insanely great software engineer Jobs began working with as a teenager.

Apple, however, also illustrates the limitations of Shenk’s creative-pair alternative to the lone-genius myth. Apple has continued to thrive after Jobs’ death even though its CEO, Tim Cook — while clearly a very smart man — has never been hailed as a Jobs-like genius. In fact, Cook takes great pains to share the spotlight with other members of the Apple team. Apple’s continued vitality is the result of collaboration between thousands of talented people, not just a few. As Shenk acknowledges in his book The Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs, the creative pair concept is itself an oversimplification — real achievement is built through networks of many people, but the nuance and complexity of networks makes it difficult to draw actionable insights from studying them.

[T]he creative pair concept is itself an oversimplification – real achievement is built through networks of many people, but the nuance and complexity of networks makes it difficult to draw actionable insights from studying them.

So what can we learn from the most successful creative partnerships?  One lesson is that great partners tend to complement rather than duplicate each other’s strengths. Yet, somewhat paradoxically, they forge their initial bond through common experiences, passions or perspectives. The difficulty of attaining that delicate balance between sameness and difference, between cooperation and competition, is why it’s so rare to find a great partner — and why so many extraordinary things become possible when you do.

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Vinay Jain

As Chief Legal Officer, Vinay serves as Shake's general counsel, is responsible for the company's legal contracts and content, and leads efforts to educate consumers and small businesses about the law.

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