Collaborate Right By Knowing When

Sam Zemurray was a Russian immigrant that came to the U.S. in the early 1900s with nothing. From there he raised an empire, becoming one of the most successful, and powerful, men in America by peddling bananas.“From his first months in America, he was scheming, looking for a way to get ahead. You did not need to be Rockefeller to know the basics of the dream: Start at the bottom, fight your way to the top.” This is precisely what Sam the Banana Man did, he fought his way to the top. Overthrowing South American governments, avoiding the FBI and CIA, and even playing a hand in politics in Louisiana Sam Zemurray built his empire almost entirely on his own. When speaking of success many people in America refer to stories like Sam Zemurray’s.

In fact, stories like this are heralded in America as the dream, but are they? When faced with a problem children, especially young boys, are told by parents to figure it out on their own; to pick themselves up from their proverbial bootstraps. Parenting like this leads to the competitive business culture we’re all too familiar with.

It’s true that rising at the expense of others will get you higher on the totem pole faster, but it will also leave you severely alienated and alone. Just ask Sam Zemurray.

The goal should be to stay competitive while also giving and receiving help. In other words, businesses, and schools, should aim for success but also encourage sharing and collaboration.

As Adam Grant puts it in his book, Give and Take:

“We tend to privilege the lone genius who generates ideas that enthrall us, or change our world. According to research by a trio of Stanford psychologists, Americans see independence as a symbol of strength, viewing interdependence as a sign of weakness.”

Relying on others is traditionally seen as weakness. So much so that parents encourage their children to fend for themselves when aid could be just as beneficial. What’s more, we later tell these same children, now young adults, to avoid helping others when it comes at the expense of their progress.

However, after reading Creativity Inc., by Ed Catmull and Give and Take, by Adam Grant it became obvious to me that environments conducive to sharing and collaboration are far better in the long term than the lone-wolf approach. Both with concerns to career and personal health, sharing the burden and collaborating with peers gives more to the members of the group than it takes away.

Rather than seeing life as a competition that everyone is alone in, try viewing it through the lens of collaboration. Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar and creator of the iconic movie Toy Story, writes:

“In many respects, my fellow students were the most inspirational part of my university experience; this collegial, collaborative atmosphere was vital not just to my enjoyment of the program but also the quality of the work that I did.”

Catmull did something strikingly different. Instead of seeing classmates as competitors, searching for the same jobs as him (which they were), he chose to open up and share his ideas and burdens.

The result of such decisions led to him becoming one of the most successful computer animators (a job that didn’t exist until Catmull) and proprietor of a multi-million dollar business in Pixar.

Catmull, and others like him manage to be open with their peers because they see the world differently. In essence, the world is not out to get you, it’s out to help you. What’s more, Catmull, like a similar post I’ve written on, viewed failure differently from what our children are taught. He writes:

“Failure was being used as a weapon, rather than as an agent of learning. And that had fallout: The fact that failing could earn you a very public flogging distorted the way researchers chose projects. The politics of failure, then, impeded our progress.”

The importance of failing cannot be overstated. Many people think that success is the culmination of one giant effort, not true. In all likelihood, a person’s success was preceded by a string of failures.

So how do you navigate between private and public work? What’s the happy medium that allows you to be creative on your own, while at the same time sharing with others and benefiting from a collaborative environment? When addressing these questions I turn to Stephen King who said, “Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.” Nothing I’ve read since has come close to accurately and succinctly stating what King says above.

Success, especially in the creative realm, starts with the individual. However, if it’s good it ends with others. The point is to shut yourself off from the world and create. Afterwards, you have to possess the courage to share with others so that you give yourself the opportunity to improve.

Collaborating is such an opportunity. Without it the artist is closed off to the world, and has to rely on his or her own experience along with handful of books. It’s not a sign of weakness but a sign of strength to share with others. As Catmull has stated:

“To participate fully [collaborate] each morning requires empathy, clarity, generosity, and the ability to listen. Dailies [daily meetings] are designed to promote everyone’s ability to be open to others, in the recognition that individual creativity is magnified by the people around you. The result: We see more clearly.”

Looking back on Catmull’s account there isn’t anything weak about Pixar’s process. Actually the reverse is true, where “creativity is magnified” rather than stunted and kept secret.

It’s extremely difficult to expose oneself to the criticism of others, especially in a setting of five or more people. Why? Because we abhor failure, and seeing our shortcomings displayed out in front of us during a group setting makes us feel vulnerable. Nevertheless, such moments of exposure are absolutely necessary because they allow us to “see more clearly.” Some of the most successful people to date know all too well the power of criticism, and the power of collaboration.

You have to develop a thick skin, but by doing so you’ll be far better off. However, it’s not to say that collaboration means bashing people, it doesn’t. Nor does it mean we should use every opportunity we have to collaborate with others, it doesn’t. What it does mean is that there is vast wealth of knowledge to draw from when we share with others. Whether it’s simply listening to one another, or constructively engaging in finding solutions the power of collaboration can mean the difference between failure and success.

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