08/05/2014 08:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Two Heads Really Are Better Than One. Here's Proof.

The lone genius is never really alone. If you find that hard to believe, I identify. When I set out to understand creative chemistry, I meant to study well-known duos like John Lennon and Paul McCartney and Marie and Pierre Curie. I wanted to see how two people buoy each other, how they make work together beyond what they could do on their own.

But the more I looked at ostensible lone geniuses, from textbook titans like Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud to modern stars like Oprah Winfrey and Justin Bieber, the more I saw that chemistry -- and the partnerships it can initiate -- is the essential story of creativity. Creative relationships take many forms, but when you consider the variety, you'll see that no lone genius is ever really alone.

1. George Lucas
An avid student of the hero's journey, George Lucas has made himself the hero-creator of Star Wars. The official history of the original trilogy makes Lucas the consummate rebel -- determined to realize his distinct vision at whatever cost, refusing to let people "tamper" with his work.

But the real story of Star Wars is of a young, hungry director's tumultuous journey through critical relationships. Lucas developed Star Wars over years, often in response to tough, trenchant criticism from his filmmaker peers -- including his wife, the accomplished film editor Marcia Lucas. "She was really the warmth and heart of those films," said Mark Hammill, who played Luke Skywalker, "a good person he could talk to, bounce ideas off of, who would tell him when he was wrong." Beyond Star Wars, their work together included American Graffiti and the Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. While making Return of the Jedi, George and Marcia divorced. His work in later years included Howard the Duck and The Phantom Menace, a film that left fans alternately bewildered and enraged. "Perhaps the absolute creative freedom director George Lucas enjoyed," Drew Grant of Salon observed, "is a path to the dark side."

george lucas

2. Mohandas Gandhi
Unlike Star Wars' fictional heroes, Mohandas Gandhi was the real thing -- known around the world as a solitary saint, a holy little man leaning on a cane, taking on the British Empire. Actually, Gandhi directed what the scholar Ian Desai calls "one of the 20th century's most innovative social enterprises." One key deputy was Mahadev Desai (no relation to the scholar), who acted as Gandhi's stenographer, confidant, interpreter, ghostwriter, editor, and all-around aide. Before Gandhi rose each morning, Desai laid out the plans for the day. 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 a single change: at the end, he would cross out the initials M.D. (Mahadev Desai) and replace them with M.K.G. (Mohandas K. Gandhi).

3. Martin Luther King
Decades later, in the southern united States, a movement arose that also depended -- so far as the TV-watching world knew -- on a single charismatic leader. But while Martin Luther King, JR. was filmed and photographed, his relationship with his fellow preacher Ralph Abernathy was seminal. In mass meetings, Abernathy laid out the facts and roused the crowd to fight. King offered moral urgency and a philosophy of nonviolence.

"They're a classic Don Quixote/Sancho Panza team--the high road and the low road together," says the scholar Taylor Branch. The pastor Nelson Trout considered them "Mr. Rough and Mr. Smooth." For a movement looking to transcend stereotypes, King was suited to the starring role. But starting with the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1954, the relationship was seminal. Thirteen years later, in early April 1968, they came to Memphis to support a strike of sanitation workers. On a night with rain, thunder, and heavy winds, an exhausted King asked Abernathy to the Mason Temple in his stead. "Martin, all the television networks are lined up waiting for you," Abernathy told his partner on the phone. "The people who are here want you, not me."
Abernathy did his usual warm-up talk and then introduced king, who began his speech by thanking him. "Ralph Abernathy is the best friend that I have in the world," he said, though of course these were the least noticed lines in a speech that became known for king's spiritual ruminations on the prospect of an assassination. "Well, I don't know what will happen now," he said. "We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop."

The next night, at the Lorraine Motel -- outside room 306, known as the King-Abernathy Suite, because they stayed there together so often -- King was shot on the balcony while Abernathy was in the room. "I wheeled," Abernathy wrote in his memoir, "looked out the door, and saw only Martin's feet." He rushed to him and cradled him in his arms. "His eyes grew calm," Abernathy wrote, "and he moved his lips. I was certain he understood and was trying to say something. Then, in the next instant, I saw the under- standing drain from his eyes and leave them absolutely empty."

martin luther king

4. Emily Dickinson
It's one thing to talk about a filmmaker and a sage and a preacher enmeshed in relationships. But what about Emily Dickinson? In her late teens and twenties, she withdrew from the usual social activities of women of her station. By her late thirties, she declared, "I do not cross my father's ground to any House or town." Even when her father's funeral service was held in the family home, she stayed upstairs and listened from her bedroom, with the door ajar. What she did in that bedroom stirred town gossip even more: she dressed in a costume of virginal white and wrote poetry. And so we have come to see Dickinson as radically isolated -- even mad.
But this is like calling Mr. Rogers cruel or Bill Clinton prudish. It's not just wrong but the opposite of the truth. Dickinson did need ample solitude, but she was assiduously, even ferociously engaged with people around her. She wrote thousands of letters -- which are, says the scholar Christopher Benfey, "beyond brilliant." She also often aimed her poems at particular readers--sending nearly fifty to the editor Samuel Bowles and almost a hundred to the writer and activist Thomas Wentworth Higginson, whom she asked to be her "Preceptor," an instructor or teacher. Dickinson often said he saved her life.

Perhaps Dickinson's most activating muse was her sister-in-law Susan Huntington Dickinson, whom she called "Imagination" itself and a source of knowledge second only to Shakespeare. To Susan, Emily sent more than 200 letters and 250 poems, even though they lived next door to each other. Belying the common portrayals of Dickinson as a fragile, secluded creature, her writings to and about her sister-in-law show her, as Ellen Louise Hart and Martha Nell Smith write, as "engaged in philosophical and spiritual issues as well as all the complexities of family life and human relationships. She knew love, rejection, forgiveness, jealousy, despair, and electric passion."

5. Valentino Garavani
On July 31, 1960, Valentino Garavani, a twenty-eight-year-old fashion designer, came to a café on the Via Veneto in Rome with some friends, but they couldn't find a table. Someone in Valentino's group saw a handsome younger man -- a twenty-two-year-old architecture student named Giancarlo Giammetti -- sitting alone and asked if they could join him. Giancarlo and Valentino took a fancy to each other, began to date, and soon found themselves in business together, with Giancarlo building an infrastructure to prop up Valentino's dream: to dress the world's most beautiful women.

Valentino was the consummate star -- charismatic and gifted and entirely impractical. Stars are often very much like children -- and their success frequently depends on their relationships with director types, who often act much like parents, walking the tightrope between patient indulgence and absolute authority. Valentino was a minor fashion star when he met Giancarlo -- but he was also going broke. Giancarlo quickly took the job of managing Valentino -- the man, the company, and the brand. He forged canny alliances and pioneered the business of fashion licensing. With the world's eyes trained on Valentino's dresses for Jackie Kennedy and Sophia Loren, Giancarlo paid their bills and funded a lavish lifestyle, sometimes by attaching the Valentino name to the most unglamorous products, like bathroom tiles and toilet-seat covers.

"Living all his life next to me, he accepted a role that was reducing," Valentino said. "But there's a saying, 'When two men ride the same horse, one has to be in the back.'" In Matt Tyrnauer's brilliant documentary, we see Valentino throw a fit because the crew has cameras trained on people other than him. "They can't follow whomever," he shouts to Giancarlo. "They have to follow me!... People have to be on their knees in front of me!"

But Tyrnauer's film also helps us understand Giancarlo's influence. Whether the two are discussing the design of a dress, reviewing the staging of a show, or even arguing over whether they met at the Café de Paris or at the café across the street, the encounters between Giancarlo and Valentino have the same tone -- Giancarlo cool and steady; Valentino hot and erratic -- and the same arc: Valentino makes a lot of drama, and Giancarlo makes the decisions.

tiger woods

6. Tiger Woods
Hidden partners are everywhere. They are the COOs who run the shop while CEOs stand on stage. They are the cinematographers who gave a film its look and feel while the directors shape the overall story. It's not just that particular people are hidden, but whole categories of work. Insiders know their importance, but the general public rarely does. The extent of this first dawned on me at a dinner hosted by a university where I gave a talk. A professor named James Masulka asked whether I had considered the relationship between golfers and caddies. I hadn't. All I knew about caddies I'd learned from Caddyshack. Masulka told me that I ought to look into it; he'd played professionally as a young man, and the dynamics of a PGA match were really interesting in terms of relationships. "You see, the golfer is -- by the rules of the pro tour -- required to go out alone, and the caddie is the only exception," he explained. "It's not like baseball, where the manager can come to the mound for a talk or where they can meet in the dugout. So the caddies end up not just as helpers but as strategists and psychologists."

Was there any pair in particular he would suggest as an example?

"Of course," he said. "Tiger Woods and Steve Williams."

Indeed, it turns out that Tiger's caddie from 1999 to 2011 did far more than carry his bags. He did more, even, than advise and succor his boss. Williams also taunted Woods--to get his blood up--and deliberately misled him when he thought it would improve his play. At the 2000 PGA Championship, in the fourth round and on the fairway of the seventeenth S hole, Woods needed a birdie to catch the leader. Williams had calculated ninety-five yards to the flag -- but he told Woods ninety. "Tiger's distance control was a problem," Williams explained to Golf Magazine. "So I would adjust yardages and not tell him." at the seventeenth, Woods hit the ball two feet from the pin and went on to win the three-hole playoff. Williams told Golf that he'd given Tiger incorrect yardages for the better part of five years.

7. Warren Buffett
In 1957, a twenty-seven-year-old investor in Omaha, Nebraska, pitched some family friends named Edwin and Dorothy Davis to join a fund he managed. Dr. Davis hardly seemed to listen. But after he conferred with his wife, they agreed they'd put in $100,000 -- most of their net worth, and a huge sum to the investor, Warren Buffett, whose portfolio at the time came to $300,000.

Buffett asked Dr. Davis why he'd take such a big risk. "You remind me of Charlie Munger," Davis replied. Two years later, when Munger, a thirty-five-year-old lawyer in Los Angeles, returned to his hometown of Omaha for a visit, the Davis family arranged for the two men to meet. Thus began the partnership behind what's probably the most successful investment operation in the history of capitalism.

In regular phone calls and occasional visits, they began to exchange ideas and advice. Munger learned from Buffett about buying companies with investor capital. Buffett slowly came around to Munger's view that bargain hunting (which he had learned as gospel from his mentor Ben Graham) often made less sense than paying a reasonable price for a good company.
By the mid-1960s, they were investing in some of the same deals. By the late 1960s, they began each day by talking to each other on the phone. But it wasn't until 1983 that they formalized their partnership, with Munger taking a stake, and the vice chairman position, in Buffett's holding company Berkshire Hathaway.

Buffett is clearly the star of the pair. Every spring, Berkshire Hathaway holds its annual shareholder meeting, a three-day affair that's been called the "Woodstock of capitalism." At the main event, Buffett and Munger take the stage to answer questions. Buffett is the consummate showman -- "the oracle of Omaha" -- waxing on about business and public policy. After his pontifications, he turns to Munger for input, and Munger gives his signature line: "I've got nothing to add."

The irony is that, while our eyes naturally follow the star, a pair's center of gravity is often with the one we see less. Though Munger receives less attention, initiates less action, and has a smaller share of the joint enterprise a Buffett quip is suggestive: "Charlie does the talking," he said once. "I just move my lips."

Joshua Wolf Shenk is the author of Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs [Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $28.00]