The Unusual Relationship Every Entrepreneur Needs
It’s not a mentor, a colleague, or an investor—it’s something else entirely.
In my early twenties, I founded an education nonprofit. I was proud of it; students enjoyed our programs, the ranks of volunteers steadily grew. The bank account stayed in the black (if by only a hair). Left to my own devices, I would have kept the organization on that trajectory for a long time—hand-to-mouth, scrappy, somewhat effective—and felt good about it.
But then Sam arrived.
Fresh off two tours in Afghanistan, she was blunt, driven, and deeply moral. She appeared in my office, fatigues still on, asking to volunteer. From that first conversation, I knew, instinctively, that I needed her.
Why? Hard to say.
It felt shocking and refreshing to be around her, but also completely familiar. It was like we were always thinking the same note but an octave apart. I didn’t have the money to hire her, but the second she got out of the Army, I did it anyway. I‘d take a pay cut off my own paltry salary if I had to. She unlocked something in me that I desperately wanted access to.
Together, we went about revising the entire organization through a flood of conversations, books, notes, and experiments. When I wasn’t around her, I was thinking about some idea she’s dropped in my lap. It was an incredible creative rush.
What the nonprofit did, how we did it, who we did it with (and for)—we changed it all. “You’re doing this wrong,” she would tell me, on a daily basis, about any number of things. She was always right.
But, her solution to the problem wasn’t always workable—so I’d offer a better one. Then she’d think about it and find what was wrong with it. Each of our ideas would cycle through the other’s mind in this invigorating, joyful feedback loop until we arrived at something great.
Within a few years, our events outgrew the tiny bookstores and exploded into giant, packed, standing-room-only theaters.
Our students spoke at the White House (and got hugs from Michelle Obama). We won grants that put our fundraising scrambles to rest.
When someone asks me how I know Sam or what our relationship is, every answer I give feels wrong. We worked together, but “coworkers” doesn’t begin to describe it. She taught me a thousand things, but she was not my mentor. She inspired me, but she was not my muse. We had a deep affection for each other, but it was not exactly—or not only—friendship. Partner is closer, but it’s far too vague.
So, what was Sam?
The creative covalent bond
Sam and I are not the first two people to share this unique bond, which drives creative and experimental work from founding companies to making music.
Other skilled teams include: Steve Jobs and Jony Ive, the Warner brothers, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, the Bloomsbury group, just to name a few. What shocks me is that we have no name for this relationship, despite how common it is, and how important.
Lacking other words, I call my relationship with Sam my covalent bond. Like two atoms that share their electrons, we share our ideas. In doing so, we become something fundamentally different—a new molecule, as it were.
The myth of the independent genius
I can think of fifteen synonyms for “big” in as many seconds, yet it took me the better part of a week to think of a name for this relationship. Why is that? Why does our language lack this word?
Probably because this relationship makes us uncomfortable.
The Western obsession with individualism—the self—means that we hate sharing credit.
We always want to know right, but who was the star? The genius? The brilliant one? Who really had the ideas? And who was just the tagalong? The backup?
When a brilliant covalent bond appears, we’d rather pretend one person was the real genius and the other was merely a support figure. There is no Einstein without Besso—but we do not learn about Besso in school. There was no Picasso without Braque, but Braque is largely forgotten. These bonds are inconvenient rebuttals of our beliefs, so we simply ignore them.
I would argue that most important creative work has always been done by a covalent bond—we just usually don’t know about the other half. Joshua Wolf Shenk notes that historically, the unrecognized half has probably often been a woman—a wife or an assistant. Perhaps a student. Or, if not a woman, the younger one in the pair, or the quieter one, the shier one, the less likable one. There are a thousand reasons why one partner takes the spotlight.
But what truly great work can ever actually be done alone, in isolation? I think none.
Are you ready for a covalent bond?
This bond isn’t merely the result of luck and circumstance the way that camaraderie or romance can be. You must actively prepare for it.
I remember a friend who joined a writer’s group: four amateur writers sharing their novels and workshopping each other’s pieces. As a social group, it was a brilliantly successful endeavor. The four women formed deep friendships. They became intimately familiar with the working of each other’s minds. They inspired each other. On the surface, it looked as though they had achieved a covalent bond.
If you’re still learning your craft, you don’t need a covalent — you need a mentor.
After two years of polishing her novel with her group, my friend showed it to me for what she believed would be a final proof. Unfortunately, I found myself in the uncomfortable position of recommending a complete rewrite. Serious structural and stylistic flaws rendered it unpublishable.
The problem was, they were all amateurs. While they connected deeply, they lacked the knowledge to refine each other’s work. Simply put: they gave each other bad advice.
If you’re still learning your craft, you don’t need a covalent—you need a mentor. Be careful not to confuse the two, as my friend did, because you will fool yourself into thinking you are creating something brilliant when, in fact, you are treading water.
Know your core values
A covalent doesn’t need to (or, really shouldn’t) share too much of your experience, or even your taste and instincts. However, they must share your values.
Think of it this way: you can be in different boats, on different seas, but you have to navigate by the same stars.
Jobs and Ives, for example, valued design above all else. McCartney and Lennon had different styles, but they agreed on whether or not a particular song was good.
If you want to find your covalent, you must be aware of your values and able to spot someone else who shares them.
If you are the sort of person who likes to be in control, who needs credit for your work, you are not ready for this relationship.
The essence of this relationship is the shared idea—meaning the results of the partnership, by definition, do not belong to you. They are not what you would have created on your own. If that thought thrills you, perhaps you are ready.
If not, then I wish you very good luck creating something brilliant on your own.