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Creativity and Collaboration

It's All About Trust and One Mind Catalyzing Another

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Collaboration is often good for creativity. But be sure to make smart choices about the characteristics of your partner, when you join forces or work alone, how you decide upon who does what and how critique is handled. The right collaborator has an enormous influence on the product and the pleasure of the exchange. If the chemistry is not right, the roles are nebulous, or competitiveness looms, collaborations can be draining. It boils down to knowing whether this person and process brings out the best in you or your work. You have to be honest with yourself. You may dearly love someone who nevertheless is not a good creative partner. It’s about how the work gets made.

Good collaboration is based on trust and the inner freedom that ensues when you come together. Good collaborators are deeply attuned to one another. Ideally, there are unspoken understandings and ways to anticipate the other’s state of mind without direct discussion. Maybe you have known your collaborator forever. Some musicians have an established rhythm of creative exchange through improvisation. A band that has played together for a long time is tight, because they can anticipate and respond richly to partners, which fosters a powerful sound. It is also possible to meet someone for the first time but be deeply in sync creatively and able to work effectively.

Another form of collaboration includes an indirect, but significant involvement. Your muse, friend, mentor, or no-longer-living influence may not be directly involved in the project, but his or her “voice” feeds your psychological strength and creative courage. Psychoanalyst Ethel Person (Feeling Strong) wrote about the importance of having a treasured other in your life to bolster creative strivings, whether it is someone in your mind or someone in the flesh. The sense that someone is there for you within or outside, even if they are not hands-on with the effort can make a huge difference for creative output. A great writer, artist or thinker, alive or not can guide you internally. Just remembering things they expressed in their works about living, about creating, or even about you in some deeply felt, magical way moves you forward.

Collaboration does not require constant en face or symbiosis with your chosen partner. Merging and separating at different phases of the work keeps individual identities and energies intact. This maintains a freshness that feeds the mutual process.

If the work is rich and you are on your own for a period, your partner and the project are still within you. Your mind is primed and catalyzed from the interchange, even when you are apart. Stimuli will then appear in arbitrary settings that feed the work. Someone might say something in a grocery store that sparks an idea. You could see ball floating in a lake and a story forms. A siren might stimulate a song. A random event can set off a cascade of creativity. When your mind is in the right place, opportunities are everywhere, as choreographer Twyla Tharp wrote. You can return to your partner with rich material. The point is that your collaborator is someone who fosters a creative, receptive, ripe mindset in you and can help you develop it.

There is a brainstorming business model developed by Alex Osborn in which groups of workers come up with a quantity of ideas in a non-judgmental atmosphere. But it turns out that many people are inhibited and competitive in groups even if they are encouraged to feel the opposite. Freud talked about the group inhibiting the creativity of a talented individual.

In a competitive business or academic setting, creative interaction may be hard to achieve. People can feel self conscious or insecure or want to maintain strong boundaries. They don’t wish to risk a blunder, put forth a bad idea or look foolish. They fear judgment and they may well be right to fear it. Perhaps a method for people to make anonymous offerings is the way to go.

As far as education goes, not all children do well with group projects. If learning environments emphasize group interactions, performing, one-upping or pleasing can become paramount. This can squelch a true creative process.

For many people creativity is a solo affair and the expectation to “speak up” hampers the process. Too much of “others,” or not enough time alone, compromises true reflection or creative discovery. Solitude and solo time are less and less a part of our cultural fabric, but more introverted people may require this. Susan Cain wrote about this in her book Quiet.

When collaborators understand and trust one another deeply they can make great things or make great things happen.

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