The ideal collaborator

I’m thinking back on all the projects I did with a partner. What qualities made for an ideal collaborator?

  • They were passionate about ideas.
  • Their ideas were different from mine.
  • They have skills I didn’t have, and that the project needed.
  • They were good at arguing without becoming nasty.
  • They understood what a logical argument was, what evidence was, and what it meant to be convincing.
  • They came at things from a different perspective from me.
  • They had a good sense of humor.
  • They understood what a deadline was and why it mattered.
  • They were good at multitasking, but also at concentrating.

But how they treated me made a big difference, too:

  • They respected the things I was good at.
  • They weren’t mean or mean-spirited.
  • They valued my knowledge, expertise, and skills.
  • They seemed to genuinely enjoy working with me.

Summing things up: they weren’t like me, but they did like me.

What I learned from this exercise

This list describes what worked when I was in a company, but it also describes what makes for an ideal client now that I am a freelancer.

Being with people who are just like you is boring. It’s also bad for collaboration. You’ll fight over the things you’re both good at, and fail at the things you’re both bad at.

Being with people who don’t like and respect you means you spend too much time worrying about credit, or about people undoing your work.

But when you work with someone who is unlike you, but likes you, the result is glorious. You create things neither could do alone. There is no need to fight over credit — you and your collaborator are both necessary components.

Interestingly, this has very little to do with age or seniority. Late in my career, if I worked with a junior programmer or graphic artist, they could do things I could never do. It wasn’t an equal collaboration, but it worked. And when I was young, it was similar — I worked with people I respected, but was able to do things they couldn’t do on their own.

Diversity is what makes this all work. Working with people just like you is tedious. It’s not just about diverse backgrounds or races or genders. It’s about diverse perspectives.

If you work with people just like you, I feel sorry for you. Bring in someone who sees things differently. Things will get a lot more interesting.

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