From an early age we’re taught to ‘play nice’ and work together.
But when we get older something strange happens. Social restrictions tell us that we need to compete instead of collaborate. We end up valuing our ideas over what’s good for the group. We protect what we have because it’s the only way we know to get ahead.
We talk of self-realization and self-expression. At school, we’re judged on our scores from solo exams.
Even the way we celebrate successful creatives is skewed. Our view of history is shaped by biographies and pop culture loves to celebrate the hero.
But dig a little deeper and you’ll see that most successful creatives had someone beside (or behind) them the whole way.
Wes Anderson wrote The Life Aquatic talking over long lunches with co-writer Noah Baumbach.
The majority of Elton John’s most famous songs were written by lyricist and collaborator Bernie Taupin.
George Lucas and Steven Spielberg wrote Raiders of the Lost Ark during spitballing sessions in a tiny home in Sherman Oaks.
Elevating a good idea into a great one takes outside opinion and insight.
But where in the creative process should you start looking for collaborators? And how do you know when you’ve found one?
The myth of the lonely genius
‘The lonely genius’ is one of the creative community’s favorite myths. A tortured artist sitting alone in their room day after day who just happens to create amazing work. No outside influence. No help. Just pure talent and raw creativity. The stuff of legends.
But creativity is rarely, if ever, a solo venture. Successful creatives understand that it is a process and not the result of some mystical talent.
Even as far back at 1939 creatives were writing about the ‘process’. Take this explanation from ad man James Webb Young’s A Technique for Producing Ideas:
“The production of ideas is just as definite a process as the production of Fords; that the production of ideas, too, runs on an assembly line; that in this production the mind follows an operative technique which can be learned and controlled; and that its effective use is just as much a matter of practice in the technique as is the effective use of any tool.”
Creativity is a tool and a process. One that can be learned and honed with practice. Taking this idea even further, creativity expert James Taylor breaks the process down into 5 steps:
- Preparation: Absorbing inspiration and getting your head into the right space for creating
- Incubation: Letting all those varying inspirations and images stew in your subconscious for days, weeks, months, until…
- Insight: The classic ‘a-ha!’ moment where your ‘new’ idea starts to form
- Evaluation: Where the idea is judged and we decide to either run with it or discard it
- Elaboration: What Young calls “the cold, gray dawn the morning after”. This is where Edison’s claim that creativity is “1% inspiration, 99% perspiration” becomes true. The idea has been born into the world and now it’s time to shape it
While parts of the creative process are more suited to individual effort, the evaluation and elaboration stages are where the power of creative partnerships truly shines.
When you test your own ideas you become blinded by your creative ego and your past experiences. Your ego tells you it’s a good idea (you came up with it, right? So it must be at least half decent) while your past experiences color how you see it (is it like something that has been successful? Well then you should pursue it!).
But when you bring in an outsider, or a trusted colleague, they aren’t jaded by your individual preconceptions.
Instead of looking through your own eyes, you’re asking someone else to while supplying them with raw inspiration. Which starts the creative process all over again.
Steve Jobs said that “Creativity is just connecting things”—A statement that applies to the individual just as much as it does to a creative partnership.
Once an idea has been born into the world it needs feedback, collaboration, and encouragement to become something great.
How to build a lasting creative partnership
Partnerships of any type require hard work, commitment, and more than a bit of sacrifice to last. And in creative environments full of egos and deadlines healthy working relationships are especially hard to nurture.
But the most productive creative partnerships are a balancing act of love and hate. Two people combining their thoughts, experiences, judgements, and goals into one vision. When you’re looking for that special someone to share your working days with, there are a few key traits to look for:
Know your strengths; Accept your weaknesses
Part of creating a partnership that works is understanding and accepting what you can and can’t do well. Working with a partner lets you use their expertise and creativity when yours might be lacking.
When Steve Jobs reached out to legendary designer Paul Rand to create the logo for NeXT, he was taken aback by the artists refusal to create multiple iterations:
“I will solve your problem for you and you will pay me. You don’t have to use the solution. If you want options go talk to other people.”
Paul trusted in his own abilities, and in turn Steve trusted in him.
Similarly, Jerry Seinfeld talking to his co-creator Larry David said, “you would pitch me some premise, some insane, absurd thing. And I would just go, ‘OK.’”
This isn’t just face value trust, but the real hard, I-still-think-I’m-right-but-I-trust-you kind of trust. The kind of trust that makes you feel sick to your stomach. That’s when you know a partnerships has reached its peak.
Embrace creative friction
To see the importance of tension in a creative partnership you don’t have to look any further than John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Their songwriting history was always a tug of war, with both sides laying claims to specific sections or whole songs. After the split of The Beatles, “That’s John’s” or “That’s Paul’s” became a common statement when talking about their own songwriting history.
But read any accounts of actual studio or writing sessions and the collaborative aspect is clear and presence. The duo depended on each other for honest insight and criticism. While one may have come to the table with the basics of a song, the end result was always colored by the other.
The friction of their individual creative egos pushed them further then they could on their own. This friction is what tennis superstar Andre Agassi described when he said that if he hadn’t faced Pete Sampras he would have had a better record, “but I’d be less”.
The best partnerships are almost like a war where each side pushes the other to be the best or face defeat.
Stay off balance
The founders of award-winning New York design studio CarboneSmolan have worked together for more than 35 years. In their offices they have a framed fortune cookie message that reads: “The road to success is always under construction.” A statement they say directly influenced the studio’s mantra of “If you stay the same, you’ll die”.
A creative partnership, just like a romantic one, thrives on new experiences and continuing to grow. Just because you’ve found a place or routine that works for you doesn’t mean that you can get comfortable.
The other weird qualities that nurture collaborative creativity
While one side of the creative partnership balancing act is filled with respect and understanding and trust, the other isn’t as pretty.
Some of the most powerful creative partnerships have also been the most explosive. And sometimes being able to pick fights and question the validity of someone else’s work is just as important as giving them praise.
Don’t be afriad to pick fights
‘Yes men’ (or women) have no place in productive creative partnerships. Debate forces your partner to defend and further explain their ideas sparking new insight. So being ruthless with feedback shouldn’t even be a question.
Be prepared to push each other to the edge
Few creative partnerships have been as fruitful and volatile as that of director Werner Herzog and actor Klaus Kinski. The duo created some of the defining arthouse films of the 90s, including Fitzcarraldo, Cobra Verde, and Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Yet, while they enjoyed productive collaborations, both men’s passions worked against them. Things would get so heated on set that Herzog once pulled a gun on Kinski and threatened to shoot him if he walked off.
An extreme example to say the least, but finding someone you occasionally butt heads against can push your ideas beyond the comfort zone and into a space where truly unique work can be created. Just don’t kill them in the process.
Partnerships aren’t just a way to push your creativity and productivity, they can also lead to a happier, healthier life. We’re social beings, and studies have shown that we feel more satisfied with our work when we are a part of a team that is working together.
When two creative minds come together they can change the way the world works. Having someone you can ask ‘Am I crazy?’ and they respond, “yes, and do it anyways’, is an incredible way to push yourself beyond your comfort zone and creates something truly new and innovative.