Why Highly Creative People Often Work in Pairs

Michelle Santiago Cortés
Feb 12, 2019 10:56PM

Highly creative people often work in pairs, but two people working together doesn’t necessarily translate to twice the ideas and twice the brainpower. It does, however, help with productivity. As James Somers wrote in his New Yorker profile of Jeff Dean and Sanjay Ghemawat, the Silicon Valley duo that transformed Google: “Everyone falls into creative ruts, but two people rarely do so at the same time.”

Author Joshua Wolf Shenk, who wrote a book on the benefits of working with a partner, Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs (2014), found during his research that one of the most compelling things about these duos is not their output, but rather how ubiquitous they are. Whether it’s revolutionizing home computers or writing pop songs, creative duos have been busy transforming seemingly every facet of our lives since the days of Adam and Eve.

These creative pairs can exist as close collaborators or couples, working together to achieve shared goals, or as friends or acquaintances who further each other’s independent achievements. Take, for example, a famous pair of modern painters: Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin. In early 1888, Van Gogh, then in his mid-thirties and already known to be a mercurial and emotionally unhinged artist, moved from Paris to Arles in the South of France. Soon after, he was joined by his friend Gauguin, per the request of Van Gogh’s brother, Theo, who paid him to do so.

Gauguin was eager to live and share his work with a fellow artist; as soon as he arrived in Arles, he bought a massive roll of jute canvas. The two roommates cut their canvases from it, made portraits of each other, critiqued each other’s work, and swapped paintings. Gauguin even painted Van Gogh’s portrait while he was working on one of his famous sunflower paintings.


However, the two painters disagreed on almost everything; they would get into heated discussions about the work of their forebears, like Rembrandt and Eugène Delacroix. In a letter to Theo, Vincent once described their conversations about artists as “excessively electric.” He added: “We sometimes emerge from it with tired minds, like an electric battery after it’s run down.” Their differences extended to their core artistic values: Van Gogh aspired to capture the essence of life, while Gauguin sought to depict the products of his imagination.

Just before Christmas in 1888, Van Gogh and Gauguin had their final row. Some believe that the falling out was so intense and devastating that it may have played a role in Van Gogh cutting off his ear (or that Gauguin sliced it off for him). Two days later, Gauguin left France for Tahiti. Their creative relationship and their time as roommates lasted a whole 63 days. But in that time, these two giants of modern art produced some of the most significant and memorable works of both their careers. Looking back on their creative relationship, Van Gogh is often cast as the true genius, who was pushed to greatness by Gauguin’s criticism and support. So while Van Gogh’s sunflowers may appear to have little to do with Gauguin, the latter is a critical part of their origins.

Creative pairs and (not always romantic) power couples are everywhere. According to Shenk, we’re not primed to acknowledge the great prevalence of such duos due to our inability to detach the idea of a “couple” from any romantic implication and our obsession with narratives of lone geniuses. “We have an impoverished understanding of relationships, generally,” Shenk recently explained, “especially as it pertains to creative work.”

He offers the examples of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, who, through years of one-upmanship, pushed each other to helm the most influential tech companies the world had ever seen; and John Lennon and Paul McCartney, who, at one point as Beatles, wrote songs like mad libs, taking turns to add to each other’s song lyrics. Broad City’s Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer make their friendship the subject of their hit TV show. These duos all seem to share a mystifying essence, a sort of covert chemistry or language that manifests in wild success.

Shenk calls it “creative intimacy,” noting that it blooms when two (or more) people share what he describes as “an extraordinary rapport and sense of self-identification,” as well as an “extraordinary difference.” In most successful and innovative pairs he studied, Shenk was shocked to find “that any two people could have that much in common,” and “that any two people could be that different,” he said.

Steve Jobs and Bill Gates at “D5: All Things Digital” conference, 2007. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Indeed, art-world titans Christo and Jeanne-Claude had some shocking similarities, though they supported each other through their differences. They were both born on the same day, June 13, 1935 (Jeanne-Claude in Morocco and Christo in Bulgaria); and they were both 23 when they met and fell in love in 1958. By 1960, Jeanne-Claude left her husband of three weeks to have a baby with Christo.

While Christo taught Jeanne-Claude about art, she opened his eyes to the creative potential of working at a massive scale. Together, they created groundbreaking installations that often involved surrounding or wrapping land masses or gargantuan structures in fabric, like the islands of Miami’s Biscayne Bay and Pont Neuf in Paris. For decades, Christo was credited for being the artistic visionary, while Jeanne-Claude was cast as his secretary or muse. It seemed almost impossible for outsiders to understand that two people could have a creative relationship in which both contribute equally.

According to Shenk, this is “in part because of this overwhelming myth of the lone genius and the way that that shapes discourse about creative work.” Conceptually, Jeanne-Claude and Christo functioned as one artist. “The only things I do myself is write the checks, pay the bills and pay the taxes,” Jeanne-Claude once told a reporter. “Everything else is Christo and Jeanne-Claude, including the creativity. It’s about time that people correct this mistake.” Until Jeanne-Claude died in 2009, the two worked as one. Christo told The Art Newspaper last year that it was their differences that fueled their creativity: “She was extremely argumentative, very critical,” he said. “She was always asking questions.”

Though the prospect of working with a friend, lover, or family member may sound like a terrible idea, as Shenk points out, all relationships are a form of collaboration. And for the most successful creative pairs, he said, “there may be a very fluid movement between the so-called personal and the so-called professional.”

Jeanne-Claude and Christo, 1996. Photo by Weychardt/ullstein bild via Getty Images.

Architectural gods Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron have built their success while maintaining 60-plus years of friendship. Before they ran one of the world’s most renowned architectural firms and became famous for designing institutions like Tate Modern’s Switch House in London and the Pérez Art Museum in Miami, they were childhood friends. Born less than a month apart in 1950, they grew up 200 yards away from each other in the Swiss town of Kleinbasel.

“Whatever we’ve done, it’s always something we’ve done together,” Herzog told WSJ. Magazine in 2018. As children, they discovered a shared desire to create with their hands, and were equally obsessed with roller-coasters and ships. But in interviews today, de Meuron speaks little, and Herzog takes the lead. “I think we accept our own weakness and the strengths of the other,” de Meuron explained.

Like shoes, arm holes, and pant legs, the fashion world is also teeming with pairs: from Dolce & Gabbana to Rodarte’s Mulleavy sisters and the Olsen twins (who have a famous Morse code–like handshake). Designer duo Viktor & Rolf have managed to upend our very understanding of what clothes can do—like a laser-cut ball gown that gives the illusion of a model cut in half, or sheets and a pillow attached to a model’s body to make her look like she’s sleeping upright. In short, they could arguably take the prize for fashion’s most creative pair.

Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren met when they were both 18, while taking exams to get into art school in the Netherlands. They collaborated on a project for a design contest, and as soon as the judge called for “Viktor and Rolf to come to the stage,” they knew they were meant to be a pair. “I don’t think we ever made a conscious choice to start working together,” Snoeren told The Guardian.

Now 50 years old, the pair behind the fashion house Viktor & Rolf still sit beside each other at the same table when they work. And still best friends, they share a “nonjudgmental partnership,” Snoeren said, “whatever the other is saying is valid and we talk about it.” Horsting added, “It’s like a constant ping pong game.”

Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren, 2013. Photo by Pascal Le Segretain via Getty Images.

Despite their ubiquity, not all creative partnerships are properly understood. In the case of Van Gogh and Gauguin, some scholars believe that Van Gogh was in love with Gauguin. A Harvard Magazine article relates that the men had a “stormy homosexual affair.” Historically, we’ve tended to ignore the parts of a relationship that aren’t easily defined; and in this case, the creative nature of the artists’ relationship gets lost.

But so what if they were lovers? Two people can be in a relationship that is at the same time romantic, sexual, productive, and creative. But, as Shenk lamented, “there’s very little space in the culture to hold a model of that kind of relationship.” He added that the conversation around creative pairs can be inhibiting, as well, preventing others from opening themselves up to the possibilities of such a relationship. Take, for example, writer Tom Wolfe, who parted ways with his editor and close friend, Maxwell Perkins, because people began to question whether Wolfe was the sole author of his work. The myth of the lone genius puts pressure on pairs to make the authorship of their work clear.

But the ubiquity of creative pairs, relationships, and collaborations highlights a larger truth: There’s a strong alternative to working alone. Even on a cultural and historical level, we all learn and borrow from each other, because no one exists as an island—not even the lone geniuses.

Michelle Santiago Cortés
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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019