Joshua Wolf Shenk, author of Powers of Two, speaks about the advantages of competitive collaboration in an article for The Atlantic. His famous example is that of The Beatles’ Paul McCartney and John Lennon who would regularly “answer” each others’ songs in friendly competition. When John wrote “Strawberry Fields,” Paul came back with “Penny Lane.” Paul notes that the competition made them “better and better all the time,” and created a creative tension.

Despite the tension—because of the tension—the work was magnificent. Though the White Album recording sessions were often tense and unpleasant (Emerick disliked them so much that he flat-out quit), they yielded an album that is among the best in music history.

The Beatles’ producer George Martin described the relationship as “two people pulling on a rope, smiling at each other and pulling all the time with all their might.” Not only did their competition create tension, but their contrasting personalities added to it as well. Paul was meticulous, diplomatic, and polite, while John could be chaotic, impatient, and rebellious. Although completely different, they complemented each other perfectly. As John’s first wife Cynthia Lennon observed:

John needed Paul’s attention to detail and persistence. Paul needed John’s anarchic, lateral thinking.

Although tension can foster creative productivity, remember to surround it with sufficient support and shared passions.


  • Chad Haynes

    I’ve been in several bands and have been playing guitar for over 10 years, and I completely agree with this. The best songs I’ve ever been a part of writing have been the ones where I felt like it was a battle to get all of the important things across that I wanted to, while others were doing the same.

    In the end, you have to squeeze all of your ideas into those 3-4 minutes as creatively as possible – sort of like editing down a book – which creates truly compelling art.

    Nice post Stephanie!

  • Lyonel Laverde

    I like the characterization about Macca, but I think calling John “chaotic, impatient, and rebellious” belies the fact, that when he tried to John could write very well crafted–as well as inspired–compositions. Cynthia Lennon had a lot of it right, but don’t forget John also refined a lot of Paul’s “meticulous” work as well. Also, they both helped cancel each other’s worst tendencies, ie, John’s tendency to politicize and present mantras instead of music, and Paul’s tendency toward syrupy cornball sentimentality.

    • S.R. Dhain

      here here! Well said. It’s telling that neither hit consistent peaks post the split, which is evidence of overdoing what they thought was great. But ironically, even lennon could get a bit syrupy , such as “bless you” and “beautiful boy”, which is good, as it rounded him out as a songwriter.

  • Steven Stark

    The key to their relationship was that they listened to each other and knew that they were better working together than separately. Many relationships at work involve people not really collaborating, but just pushing their own agenda, stroking their own ego, or playing it safe.

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