The Art of Collaboration

In 2012, Great Britain was set to host the Summer Olympics in London. The charter for the Olympics mandates that the host country must put on an opening ceremony to demonstrate and celebrate their culture to the world.

The previous Olympics had been hosted in 2008 in Beijing, and China had had the most expensive, elaborate opening Olympics Ceremony to date.

The London team, headed by Academy Award winning director Danny Boyle, had roughly half China’s budget. It was clear that they weren’t going to be able to top China in either budget or scope. Boyle said “you can’t get bigger than Beijing… obviously I’m not going to try and build on Beijing, because how could you? We can’t, and you wouldn’t want to, so we’re going back to the beginning.” They aimed to “[rethink] and [restart]” what an Olympics Opening Ceremony could look like.

One major part of the resulting ceremony involved a collaboration between Boyle and Rick Smith, a musician and composer in the group Underworld. The resulting track, “And I Will Kiss,” accompanied the Pandemonium section of the ceremony representing Britain’s Industrial Revolution. This 17-minute piece of music was enormous in scope:

the statistics are mind-boggling: 1200 musicians were recorded in dozens of sessions, yielding two dozen Pro Tools projects containing several thousand tracks in total. Three months’ work on a 1000-channel desk was needed to condense all this material into a 200+ track mix session, and then to several different stereo and 5.1 mixes.

The resulting piece is an incredible piece of music, and it perfectly accompanied what Boyle called the “biggest scene change in theatre history.”

The ceremony is incredible to watch, and was immediately received with overwhelmingly enthusiastic responses. Despite the constraints and Beijing’s precedent, the ceremony was a success.

Collaborations like this move something deep within me. They give me a sense that so much is possible, even more than we can dream.

I Hate(d) Group Projects

I didn’t always love collaborations, though.

I have a strong memory of a particular group project in middle school. It was the eighth grade, in my “IPS” Class – an acronym I could never remember but recently looked up. It stands for “Introductory Physical Science.”

Boring, like the class and its materials.

I loved the teacher, Mr. P, but found the material dry and stressful. It was just over my skill level at the time, and I struggled to keep up with others in the class.

I especially hated the frequent experiments we had to do. Boil a test tube, measure some powders, or whatever nonsense it was. I never understood exactly what we were doing, or why, or how to do it. It was pretty consistently the stupidest and most ashamed I remember feeling in my life.

At one point I had to do a group project: research and present on a source of renewable energy. An assigned topic, with assigned collaborators. They were two kids I didn’t really like, and they didn’t really like me, either.

I didn’t feel comfortable around them. One of them was mean, and I think looking back on it that he probably had significant issues at home. The other was a little friendlier, but wasn’t particularly warm or interested in me. They were, however, interested in me doing the work for this group project.

I was stressed out and anxious: I wanted to do well in the class, but I was afraid of failing. I wanted the teacher to like me. The other kids didn’t seem to really care as much as I did. One flat out didn’t care at all – he did barely any work, save for the required speaking during the presentation. The other did a bit of research to help me, but at the end of the day, I’m pretty sure I did 90% of the work on that project, at least as I remember it.

The presentation went fine. I was nervous, I dreaded it, but I’d done the work and helped my two classmates to fumble through appearing like they knew what they were talking about with wind energy. But I walked away hating group projects, resenting the students and the class.

For a long time, that was my feeling about collaborations with others: avoid them at all costs. I believed that others would take advantage of me, that I wouldn’t enjoy it, and that nothing good can come of collaborating. That was what I internalized from that experience.

It’s a surprise to look back on my experience in recent years, and notice that this has gradually shifted – and in the exact opposite direction.

I’ve found myself making music videos, blog posts, books, software products, online courses, and more with friends and allies. I’ve done many collaborations, with many different kinds of collaborators, and – shockingly – enjoyed myself. I enjoyed the process, and I’ve been proud of what we’ve created.

What changed?

I think, looking back on it, I had the opportunity to do projects that were the exact opposite of the one I had in middle school. I got to choose who I collaborated with, and on what. I could say no to projects I didn’t want to work on, or collaborators I didn’t want to work with, and I could say “hell yeah” to projects and collaborators I did.

Like working with James Stuber on the Digital Productivity Coach. Seeing how James and I had the same productivity skills in common, and a shared vision, so we could divide and conquer, working largely asynchronously on the same project for years to make something bigger and more useful than either of us could have done alone.

Or making illustrations with Sílvia Bastos for my blog posts. I saw how people responded to the first article I did with her, on Daoist sexual practices. Even though the topic was unusually spicy, the details are actually pretty dry. Combined with the power of her art, my words resonated more widely than they would have otherwise.

Above all, I saw the impacts these projects were having. Seeing the Digital Productivity Coach help people level up. Hearing that people had started to do loving kindness or standing meditation or Internal Family Systems because of my articles. Hearing that the music videos I’ve made brought a smile to people’s faces.

Principles of Collaboration

Looking back on it, I see that I’ve discovered and internalized some fundamental principles of collaboration. There’s nothing novel here, per se – but it seems worthwhile to articulate what’s working, so I can be more conscious of it, and share it with others. Here are the principles I’ve discovered:

Steer towards maximum benefit:

Be ambitious: ambition is taking a good look at your friends and your crew and your allies and discovering the greatest gift to the world you can possibly make together. High-level power is about collaboration, helping as many people and organizations as possible to achieve their goals

Keep perspective: Know what matters, and what doesn’t. Hold things lightly, do your best, don’t be mean or cruel or petty.

Good projects, good people, good results: Choose the projects, choose the collaborators, listen to the feedback. Rinse, repeat.

Choose the right projects:

  • Stand for something good: if you plant your feet firmly in the ground for something good, help will arrive. If it’s good, beautiful, or inspiring, people will want to help, participate, support you in it.
  • Keep your eye on the prize: have a shared intent. State it clearly, recall it often, clarify or adapt it when need be. Statements of purpose/intent, moodboards, and frequent, short conversations (whether synchronous or asynchronous) help with this.
  • Order your projects intelligently: play your collaboration cards in order. Do the smaller project before the bigger project.
    • Challenge yourself every time: Try something new every time you do something.
      • Pick something hard, but not too hard: don’t bite off more than you can chew, but make sure that what you set out to do is a little bit scary, a little bit outside of your comfort zone, a little bigger and bolder than anything you’ve done before.
      • Do it bigger every time: Make each project a little bigger, a little more ambitious. Baby steps compounding towards increasingly epic possibilities..
      • Learn something every time: Get better, stronger, more skilled with every collaboration.
  • Know how much gas is in the tank: money, time, energy, morale/interest/enthusiasm.

Choose the right people:

  • Collaborate with people:
    • you like and enjoy spending time with.
    • who are skilled at what they do (and at things you’re not skilled in)
    • who you can learn from, with, alongside
    • who get things done effectively (have productivity skills)
    • who are honest, have integrity (DWYSYWD), and act ethically towards you + others
  • Know yourself: your strengths, your weaknesses, your money situation, your needs, your goals, your dreams.
  • Know your collaborators: their strengths, their weaknesses, their money situation, their needs, their goals, their dreams.
  • Go on collaboration dates: go on a quick date to get a sense of each other. Have some fun together.
  • Know whose role is whose: hold to the vision, but defer to the believable person when it comes to execution. Let the artist decide on aesthetic matters.
  • Value the relationship above all else: the other person, and your relationship with them, is more important than any project, no matter how big or important or expensive.
    • This is for two reasons: unconditionally, intrinsically because they are a person worthy of love and respect; and conditionally, practically, because long-term collaboration, if deemed tenable, is more valuable than any one individual project.

Feedback:

  • Ask for feedback: ask for feedback, listen to the feedback (both explicit and implicit), honor the feedback, learn from the feedback.
  • Give feedback to grow: Give feedback. Give kind feedback. Give positive, well-deserved, accurate, helpful, encouraging positive feedback. If you have to give constructive feedback, say it as kindly as you can, while still honoring the honest truth you have to share. This is Right Speech: true, useful, kind (words) kind (state of mind), timely.
  • Fast information flow: Fast information flow is important. Constantly ask yourself, “Who needs this information right now?” and get that information to them as soon as possible.
  • Let your projects give you feedback:
    • Celebrate your victories: take the time to celebrate your successes, your launches, your growth. Really enjoy it.
    • Say thank you: it’s always worth saying thank you. Thank your collaborators, earnestly, honestly, frequently, perceptively.
    • Surprise yourself: let your projects surprise you with what’s possible. It won’t turn out the way you planned, and that’s ok – it’s better that way. See the beauty and brilliance in the way it turned out, in the thing you actually shipped, rather than the merely imagined idea in your head.
    • Talk out loud: talk out loud, build in public, share your victories, your losses, your questions. It helps you learn, helps people know what you’re up to, attracts collaborators, and inspires others.

I’m looking forward to seeing what’s possible in years to come. I’ve scoped out a lovingkindness EDM album with Danny J, and dream of making a metta-focused dance club. And that’s just what I can imagine – who knows which projects will arise as possibilities, or which collaborators I’ll be able to work with – what we’ll be able to accomplish together – what gifts we’ll be able to give the world.

Gather excellent collaborators, and have the ambition to dream big, to look past what you imagine possible and make something no one has ever done before.

Together, we can build something bigger, better, more beautiful: a gift to the world, needed, invited, drawn out of us, offered in a spirit of generosity, love, and play.

Further Resources

Thank you to all the collaborators who have worked with me over the years. Thanks to Anna Gát and the Interintellect community for giving me an occasion to reflect on and voice these lessons, and for bringing so many wise observations to my salon. Thank you to Noah and Antoine Buteau for reviewing this post and providing comments. And thank you to Michael Ashcroft for sharing “And I Will Kiss” with me.

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