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How to Find (and Keep) Your Ideal Creative Partner

Tips and insights from Joshua Wolf Shenk's new book on collaborators.

When Carl Jung met Sigmund Freud, they “talked uninterruptedly for thirteen hours,” writes Joshua Wolf Shenk in his inspiring book, Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs. Two people so hungry to devour each other’s thoughts and stories, and so delighted to be understood and challenged by the other that they would engage in a day-long conversation: It sounds like falling in love or bonding with a destined-to-be-close friend.

Just as with a romantic or platonic soul mate, finding an ideal creative collaborator is life-altering and enriching, for the pairs and sometimes even for the world at large. In the book, Shenk, who also wrote Lincoln’s Melancholy, first dismantles the cherished myth of the “lone genius” who invents and discovers in isolation, and then reveals the common characteristics and complicated dynamics of fruitful teams. Shenk quotes the eminent neuroscientist John Cacioppo while making the former point: “’In fact, the idea that the center of our psychological universe, and even our physiological experience is ‘me’–this just fundamentally misrepresents us as a species.’”

The book recounts dramatic stories of legendary collaborators including John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Suzanne Farrell and George Balanchine, and Francis Crick and James Watson, but also provides guidelines for readers eager to find and develop these special relationships (ones that might simultaneously be characterized as romantic, friendship-based, or merely collegial) for themselves. We envision big ideas and expressions as radiating from one head; in fact they are often best imagined as an ongoing series of intellectual and emotional sparks jumping between two minds (and hearts).

Starting from Zero

The first thing to do, Shenk writes, is to simply imagine that you could find an ace co-conspirator. “To try, press the green button—not the red one—when your phone rings. To try, ask for help—send an e-mail: ‘This is Major Tom to Ground Control.’”

Don’t rely on fate alone, he warns. “If there is such a thing as fate, it works through human agents.” You’re much likely to meet your future co-star through friends and acquaintances you already know.

Seek out a “magnet place” where you’re apt to find those who share your interests and ideas. “When you speak of what you want, and even one person hears, it may begin a generative loop.”

Different and the Same

It sounds like a paradox (and Shenk points out that the intersection of intimacy and creativity is rife with those), but you must be alike enough to "get" each other’s goals, dreams, and mindsets, yet different enough to escort each other in exciting new directions. Such difference could arise from personality styles, for instance, or areas of specialization within a field.

“The individuals in great dyads will be very different from each other and very much alike. These simultaneous extremes generate the deep rapport and energizing friction that define a creative pair.”

Roles and Dialectics

Being a productive creative collaborator entails playing one’s role and appreciating the dialectical nature of golden creative output.

Some possible roles you and your partner might fulfill, Shenk suggests, are “The Liquid” that pours out ideas and the “Container” that catches and shapes the best of those, or the classic “Dreamer” and “Doer.”

“Pairs…may take shape when each member of a team tends to a particular role, as with a player and a coach. There are also dialectics of turn-taking, as with a spotter and a sniper on a military team, where there are two defined roles but no one person assigned definitively to either. In a final twist, we see how dialectics shape the internal workings of the creative mind itself—how even the thinking of a solitary person is, in a sense, relational.”

Managing Emotions

There’s the work itself, and then there’s the work of maintaining the valuable relationship between collaborators: “So much of what people in a pair do for each other is balance praise and criticism and exploration and curiosity in an ongoing exchange. Emotional management is as important as any discrete creative advance, and balance is key here too….Francis Crick said that if he had a flawed idea, ‘Watson would tell me in no uncertain terms this was nonsense, and vice-versa. If he would have some idea I didn’t like, and I would say so, this would shake his thinking.’ Crick believed it essential to be ‘perfectly candid, one might almost say rude, to the person you’re working with.’ The death knell to real collaboration, he said, is ‘politeness.’”

Here is Shenk’s hard-won advice on the matter: “Some people need a cup of sugar for every drop of medicine. Give them the sugar. Some people cantake the medicine straight. Pour it out in generous doses.”

Expecting Conflicts, Competition, and Disappointments

Machines that fly in the sky like giant birds or stirring songs that an overwhelming number of humans on Earth can sing along to, with joy, are not made under purely sunny conditions. “The coesxistence of cooperation and competition is more than institutional. It’s basic to human relations and the human psyche. Everyone, the psychologist Elaine Aron explains, has two primary relational impulses: to link, or find common ground, and to rank, or establish hierarchical positions.”

“Epic conflict is legion in pairs.” Think Yoko.

“Accept that what makes you furious about your partner is wrapped up with what excites you.” Anyone in any close relationship will smile in recognition at that incisive statement. Save the fury for later, and for now, go forth excitedly, and find the Trey Parker to your Matt Stone, the Jean-Paul Sartre to your Simone de Beauvoir, or the Sigmund Freud to your Carl Jung.