“There are three kinds of relationships – friend, romantic, and creative” said composer Jesse Guessford. I had asked him about working with others, and he said this to illustrate that there is something special about successful creative partners. In the same way that friends are more than acquaintances, and marriages are more than steady dates, creative relationships are more than simply people who help each other create. “More than” is not a single thing either – it is not just that friends are more fun than acquaintances. They have longer histories, deeper commitments, and more substantial shared experiences. Romantic partnerships are even more illustrative of how such relationships can grow in complexity, intensity, and fruitfulness until the time that “the two become one” (to use the phrase common to many wedding ceremonies).
Matchmaker, matchmaker make me a match
Recent popular work (1) has brought attention to creative pairs like Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, or Keith Richards and Mick Jagger. This work also notes that many high profile creative individuals (Steve Jobs, Jerry Seinfeld, Elton John) are in creative relationships with others who are not in the spotlight (Steve Wozniak, Larry David, and Bernie Taupin respectively). This work moves people to see beyond the detrimental myth of the lone genius creator (2). But it also invites them to ask if there something special about these creative pairs? As the magic 8 ball says, “All signs point to yes.”
Often when you break creative pairs apart, the subsequent creative output is not as impactful. Many people like the show Curb Your Enthusiasm, which was Larry David’s follow on to Seinfeld, but it is not the entertainment phenomenon that Seinfeld was. It is not simply that a person finds an inadequate new partner when they break from the original pair. Mick Jagger’s attempts to go solo in the 80s also failed to inspire, even when he collaborated with an equivalent musical giant – David Bowie. Remember their cover of “Dancin’ in the Streets?” I didn’t think so.
There seems to be some kind of chemistry that makes a creative pair work. Without it, relationships fizzle rather than ending in marriage. Using the marriage analogy is apt, as practically all of the creators I interviewed compared their strong creative relationships to marriages. What emerged from the relationship, the creative “offspring” to possibly push the analogy too far, was better than what the people could have produced individually or with other partners. It is this last part, finding the right partner, which is the trick. So what do we know?
All by my se-e-elf, don’t wanna be…
Marriages work in many different ways, but some things are fundamental. I also found this in my own work on creative relationships. There seemed to be some fundamental ingredients: Friendship, respect, and a shared vision. Friendship is what makes people want to spend time together, and creativity takes time to develop. To get creativity right, you need to be willing to rethink your own ideas because people are almost never right from the get go. Partners help provided you listen to and take seriously what your partner says, and that takes respect. To respect someone is to admire them and to believe their ideas deserve attention simply because they come from that person. Finally, you need a shared vision; you both have to have aligned beliefs about whatever the value is in your creation. This last one is, I think, why you can’t just put really talented people together and get magic (e.g., Mick Jagger and David Bowie). They need to be going in the same creative direction.
Ok, so you have a good partner, now what? Bess Rouse recently provided more insight (3) into how such creative relationships work and develop over time. One of the most crucial points she makes is that this is an intimate process. It is fraught with emotions of all types, and has to grow through a kind of merging of identities. Her second point is that both people need to share ownership of what is created. Once again, marriage is a good analogy, and why I implied that “the two become one” in the opening. Moreover, if parents are going to have the best shot at raising healthy and capable children (the creative ideas, in our analogy), neither one will claim dominance over the other, and both will respect each other’s wishes for how their child should be raised.
Yet as any spouse or parent knows, conflict creeps in. So, too, will this happen in creative relationships. Creation at the higher levels often involves bearing one’s soul and exposing oneself to criticism that can cut deeply. As Rouse notes, criticism and rejection is par for the course when people are thinking divergently. Creation would be much easier if they could simply “yes, and…” their way to innovations. But good creativity does not include everything that people think of. Good creativity requires exclusion and criticism. As Rouse wrote, “Being able to challenge and push is essential to developing better ideas. (p.18)”
How long has this been going on?
Rouse also notes that one of the hidden challenges is being able to share credit. When one in a pair becomes the “star,” it strains the relationship. People begin to question each other’s contribution to the creative endeavor. When that happens, the ability to push and develop ideas breaks down. Rouse illustrates this strain and its ill effects using Michael Lewis’ story of the creative relationship between famous psychologists Khaneman and Tversky (4). Tversky once wrote to Khaneman, “You have become very protective of some ideas and develop an attitude of ‘love them or leave them’ rather than trying to ‘get it right.’ One of the things I admired you for most in our joint work was your relentlessness as a critic. (p. 331)” Note that Tversky’s is not asking for Khaneman to agree, he is asking Khenaman to share.
Sharing is not just about credit, it is also about commitment. That is part of the intimacy. When people pull back, it can produce enduring rifts. When Mick Jagger went off on his own, it was a personal betrayal for Keith Richards. After that point, their relationship changed. “We will always be brothers but we will never be friends,” said Richards in an interview on CBS Sunday Morning. The personal nature of creative relationships is the reason I headed this section with that particular song quote. Most people think it is about a cheating romantic partner. In actuality, it was written about the bass player working with other musicians.
Well I’m lookin’ at you, and I’m wondrin’ what chu gonna do…
There is one last thing I forgot to mention, having a creative partner makes the experience better. I can tell you that personally. Jeff Loewenstein has been my creative partner going on 20 years now. Joe Frick was my creative partner in my prior career as a musician. Though I am very proud of the works we created together, these only capture a fraction of the benefits that I have gotten from knowing them, screaming matches* and all.
* Note that Jeff and I don’t scream at each other, but Joe and I have. We were younger and I was far more volatile back then.