Dear Josh: My Partner And I Have Great Chemistry, But I'm Doing All The Work. Can We Make It As A Team?

Joshua Wolf Shenk, author of Powers of Two: Seeking the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs, offers advice on forging great creative relationships. Today: One is a rock star, the other a work horse--can it work?

From August 4 to 8, Fast Company is hosting the Creative Counselor, who offers advice on how to forge and maintain great creative relationships. The Counselor, aka Joshua Wolf Shenk, is the author of the new book, Powers of Two: Seeking the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs. He's spent five years studying the most famous and productive creative partnerships, from John Lennon and Paul McCartney to Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak to Marie and Pierre Curie, comparing the common points of these stories with the latest in science and psychology. And now, he's here to help you make the most of your creative collaboration.

Here, the Counselor advises one half of a creative pairing that's heavy on chemistry, but out of balance--one partner is supplying the sparks but the other is doing the heavy lifting. Can a partnership run on magic? Or will the get-it-done member of the team end up being exploited?

Dear Josh,
I’m an entrepreneur in the food world and a few years ago I created a series of pop-up restaurants with a manager I’ll call Kate. When we got going, the chemistry was immediate. The business was fabulous--we did 200-some dinners with 40 or so chefs--but beyond that, there’s just this electricity around us. We started getting approached by agents and managers and production companies to do a TV show. Our communication is crazy good. And we just naturally find our roles and switch: good cop and bad cop, awkward and not awkward. Whatever it is, we know what the other one is going to do.
The problem is that I did so much more work than her--from booking the chefs to managing accounts to marketing and PR. When we came out of the pop-up and were going to open a new place, she said she’d do the P&L. She said, “I know you’re a little wary of me, so let me give you a deadline.” But it came and went three times and she just never delivered.
Now I’m on another project. Kate and I are good friends but I don’t know whether I want to work with her again. The potential is so much greater with her than with anyone that I’ve ever worked with. But the risk is also much higher, too. She does bring skills--but I could hire someone equivalent for much less than 50% of a venture.
So my main question is how much do I value the magic? And if we do proceed, how do I work with her?
Signed,
Chemistry Experiment

Dear Experiment,

You should value magic a hell of a lot. The fact that it’s not obvious--even to an accomplished entrepreneur like you--speaks to how poorly our culture understands the real engine of creativity. It’s not gumption, or originality, or talent, or executive ability. It’s the way these qualities get activated--which almost always depends, in one way or another, on an electric connection.

But while feeling electricity can be as easy as plugging into a socket, it can also be as jarring as a shock. A mad great partner is often maddening. When Sergey Brin and Larry Page first met, they broke into an argument; the writer John Battelle has described them as “two swords sharpening each other.” After C.S. Lewis first met J.R.R. Tolkien, Lewis wrote in his diary: “No harm in him; only needs a smack or so.” And for many great partners, the tension doesn’t dissipate; it takes root underneath everything they do. The power of Lennon and McCartney was often Lennon vs. McCartney, etc.

So don’t sweat that you’re asking yourself whether it’s worth it. I actually think that’s a sign that you’re in a partnership that’s worth it. Tension is to creativity as gasoline is to combustion engines.

The real question is how to engineer a machine so that the fuel gives it forward motion and doesn’t make it jerk and shudder. To start, I’d suggest you give up the idea that a profoundly mutual enterprise needs to be symmetrical in terms of power. It never is, not completely, and it may be that your biggest piece of work is getting comfortable with that, and finding a way to dominate Kate in a way that still keeps the energy flowing.

It sounds like you’re an adept producer and she’s the sort of talent that brings an intangible value. You’re more ordered and organized and she’s more free-flowing and associative. That means it’s on you to set up a workable structure. Find a way for her to face some consequences if she doesn’t show up and play. Maybe she’s an employee to whom you pay a salary. Maybe you split profits but keep a controlling interest. Maybe everything is equal on paper but you just find a way to take the wheel.

Ironically, one of the best ways to make it work for you is to think about her. What arrangement would help her do her best work? If my editor said to me, “Look, we’ve got to publish this book at some point or another but we can be flexible. Just let me know when you think it’s done … ”--it would be a nightmare because I never think anything I write is done. I’m a perfectionist and I’m moody. I’m often blocked for long periods of time. I tend to be impractical.

So that’s not the way it works between us. We discuss delivery dates, and I have some input, but then it gets written into a contract and if I don’t deliver, he could cancel the deal. This makes for a radical power imbalance. But it’s effective. And not just to get a product to market. It’s also effective for me as a writer.
But remember, no matter how well you set things up in advance, if you work with Kate, you’ll be vulnerable. Relational magic has infinite value but there’s a good reason why people prefer to be alone and less powerful. The moment you recognize someone is indispensable, you have to put up with her shit. Deal with it when it gets in the way of the work. But often it’s part of the work.

Now go connect.

Warmly yours,
The Creative Counselor

[Model of a Mineral: Gudjon E. Olafsson via Shutterstock]

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4 Comments

  • robbi

    I'd be interested to hear if Kate thinks you're actually doing more work, or if she is, or if it's actually 50/50. In most instances, whoever you're talking to thinks they're working the hardest. There might be some things that Kate does that you don't value as "work" that are impossible for you to accomplish on your own. Or there might be things that Kate does that you just don't even see, that still take up her time and energy. None of it may be booking or managing or marketing or PR or P&L, things that (it seems) are more your part of the collaboration and potentially the more measurable aspects of your work together. Perhaps she'd be willing to take a smaller cut and you can just hire someone to do those pieces that she's not good at but that you don't want on your plate.

  • Eric Hamilton

    Any venture is a sum of the work of both parties, accounting for all pieces, both tangible and intangible. I suggest you read "Slicing The Pie" and work from a Grunt Fund. It will take the pain out of deciding ownership, but make it clear in the end who deserves wha percentage of the ventue.

  • lucylaw

    In a partnership where one party ends up working more, resentment will develop. Does this really have to be a 50/50 profit share venture? That's a recipe for disaster. Imagine your bitterness if the company totally takes off, and she gets to coast, while you still have to do the grunt work?

    Don't discount chemistry, but like a good marriage, chemistry is not everything and divorce will ensue if both parties don't look out for one another. Not delivering on deadlines is a Big Red Flag. It's like dating the hot guy/gal who is perpetually late, but the sex is hot. Time passes and the lateness habits spills over into selfishness in other aspects of the relationship. Hot sex becomes moot point when you realize you are dating a narcissist.

    Ask yourself if Kate is someone who is genuinely a person of integrity. Or doe she have a history of not being reliable? If it were me, I'd make her a paid employee.