Partners In Crime: The Power of Finding Your Creative Collaborator

Everyone has the capacity to be more creative.

One huge key to becoming more creative is to bridge individual creativity with group creativity.

Strong creative collaborators make you more creative, more confident in your ideas, and faster at arriving at those ideas.

Creative solutions do not appear in an instant. We research problems, sometimes over a lifetime.

We look for solutions in a myriad of ways, from different perspectives, reframing the problem, restricting the rules of the game, speaking to experts. We feed our minds with creative raw material, allowing our subconscious to grind away at a problem.

Persistence is key.

New perspectives are critical.

Both of these come more easily when we have a creative partner to spur us on, to bounce ideas off of, to learn from.

John Lennon & Paul McCartney, Photographed by David Bailey

Famous creative partnerships exist throughout history. Lennon and McCartney. C.S. Lewis and Tolkien. Thoreau and Emerson. Madam Curie and her husband Pierre. Sherlock and Watson.

We have dozens of modern day examples as well. Jobs had Wozniak, Ives, and Cook. Zuckerberg has Sandberg. Beyonce has Jay-Z. Warren Buffett has Charles Munger. Stephen King has his wife, Tabitha. Penn has Teller.

And there are partnerships we don’t see. The creative geniuses, inventors and entrepreneurs that rely on their spouse or best friend or employees or peers, who may not share the limelight. Researcher and psychologist Vera John-Steiner (2000) studied this concept and confirmed that many famous innovators in literature, science and the arts depended greatly on lesser known or unknown creative collaborators.

Partnerships Are Essential To Becoming More Creative

“Most of us can work better creatively when teamed up with the right partner because collaboration tends to induce effort, and also to spur our automatic power of association.”
- Alex Osborn, The O in BBDO & creator of brainstorming

When you bounce ideas off someone, or lean on someone for their ideas and critiques, you magnify your own abilities in several ways.

  1. Momentum: Someone besides yourself is pushing you, supporting you, moving you to the next step
  2. Sources: You add more ideas to the pile, more research, another lifetime of knowledge
  3. Perspective: You see angles and flaws you would not have seen yourself
  4. Speed: You are able to work faster, identify the best ideas more quickly
  5. Decisions: A sounding board helps you talk through your own decisions, understand your own thinking more easily. Someone to be your editor
  6. Validation: A good partner not only sees the flaws in your work, but can help support your best ideas and spur you forward in the right directions

There is still great power in the individual creator.

The partner dynamic works best when each person is a strong creator individually.

Types of Creative Partnerships

“Creativity depends on connection. Always. But there are immense varieties of how this manifests.”
- Joshua Shenk, ‘Powers of Two’ author

1. The Dynamic Duo

While in a grocery store making jokes about items on the shelf, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David thought of the idea for the TV Show Seinfeld.

Alec Baldwin and Tina Fey

There’s Ogilvy and Mather. Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin. Larry and Sergey at Google. Fallon and Timberlake. All dynamic duos made better by the power of a creative partnership.

I believe in the power of creative collaboration even more because my creative partner is a special person in my life. I often say my best ideas are the result of collaborating with my girlfriend, the talented Nicole D’Alonzo. We support each other on a daily basis with creative ideas and encouragement.

Even in the short term, sometimes you just need another person’s perspective to help your ideas along.

Irving Berlin (center) with Rodgers and Hammerstein and Helen Tamiris

One of the most famous songwriter’s of all time, Irving Berlin, known for penning “White Christmas,” “Puttin’ On The Ritz,” and God Bless America (and 1500 other songs) began his career with a little help from a neighbor.

Berlin had the idea for his first hit song while he was waiting tables at a restaurant in Manhattan. He went home and asked his musician neighbor for help. Together they wrote, “My Sweet Marie from Sunny Italy,” the first of many Berlin hits.

2. The Serial Collaborator

Robert Millikan and Albert Einstein, Caltech, 1931

Other creative leaders, we may even call them geniuses, were excellent at creative collaboration on a grander scale. Einstein, for example, had over 100 collaborators (including Neils Bohr) who helped spur his development of modern physics.

Thomas Edison worked with hundreds of inventors, scientists, and engineers. He started over 200 companies, not on his own, but through collaboration.

3. The Writer and Editor

Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Emily Dickinson (more info on their collaboration)

Fiction writers almost always write alone. They toil with ideas and scripts and abstract constructions of their creative worlds.

All great writers have an editor that helps bring out their best work. Many great writers also have a spouse or peer that serves as an unofficial editor. The power of the writer-editor partnership elevates the individual creative’s mind to do their best work.

How To Maximize The Results Of A Creative Collaboration

“The lightning spark of thought, generated in the solitary mind, awakens its likeness in another mind.”
- Thomas Carlyle, Scottish philosopher, satirist
Source: Shutterstock.com Two heads creative

1. Brainstorm on your own

The brain of one individual is still the most powerful computer in the world. Always start on your own in any brainstorm or collaboration. Don’t underestimate the number or quality of ideas you can generate as one person.

As mentioned earlier, there is great power in the individual creator as well as working with a collaborator.

Cultivate both styles of working. Switch back and forth between working on your own and working with a partner. Constantly comparing notes, asking for edits, testing hypothesis, etc.

2. Switch roles

If one person is always in the role of the critic and the other the creator, the potential results of a collaboration are stunted. Switch things up when you can.

And remember, even if it is being asked for, too much criticism, or only criticism, can have some drastic effects on the creative process. Two keys here.

  1. Don’t introduce criticism into the creative process too early.
  2. Remember to balance criticism and constructive feedback with enthusiasm and support of the best ideas.

3. Plan for friction

Two people will often disagree on the best solution to a problem. Our egos get in the way here. Our vision gets disrupted.

Disagreements are opportunities for insight. To learn a new perspective on the problem.

In the end, there are two guides that will help escape creative disagreements.

  1. Ownership:
    The owner of the project (or a group vote) is usually going to be the final decision maker. Be clear on who the decision maker is and put forth your best ideas and advice for them, understanding that the final decision is not yours.
  2. Pick Your Battles:
    Decide which battles to fight. Weigh the cost and benefits of each debate and whether it is worth the friction. Don’t be afraid to defend a great idea with passion, but avoid creating unnecessary arguments.
  3. Listen For Passion:
    Be cognizant of the other person’s passion when disagreement takes place. If they are defending their ideas with fervor, it might be an opportunity for you to listen more.

4. Challenge one another

A creative collaboration is best when it challenges everyone involved. Be there to push. To spur. To spark new ideas. Push the best ideas to be bigger.

Encourage one another. Ask for progress reports. Be accountable.

Don’t let them think too small.

Never let great ideas be squandered.


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