It’s the time of the year where people fuss over detailed list of goals, or systems that’ll supposedly change the outlook of the year. It’s simply that time of year. But a few people, either by happenstance or on purpose, will stumble onto something far more substantive — their creative partner.
Larry David found himself in such a circumstance in 1988, as a working comic at the Improv Comedy Club. Telling offbeat jokes and antagonizing the crowd at each turn, he was what insiders call “a comic’s comic.” As he explained it to James Kaplan of The New Yorker, “which means I sucked.” Nobody would have predicted that this middle-aged comic would become the co-creator of the most successful show of the next decade.
David’s style was aggressive. He was unhinged, and his old, worn-down army jacket that accompanied him on stage typified his aura — stodgy and combative. The slightest provocation would throw him into a fury and have him storming off stage. A fellow comic icon, Jerry Lewis, recalled, “Even if someone would whisper, ‘I’ll have another Daiquiri’ — literally — he’d storm off. I mean, it was ludicrous.”
His soon-to-be partner, Jerry Seinfeld, couldn’t have been more different. Seinfeld was a natural, smooth and commanding. Other comedians would comment about the ease of his early on-stage presence, which took years for most to master.
The duality that Seinfeld and David exhibited stretches beyond television and the arts. In fields like venture capital, we see the same parallels appear in successful partnerships. A study done by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that there were two types of collaboration in the field: affinity-based relationships with similarities in background, and ability-based relationships determined by prestigious education or experience.
Unsurprisingly, partners who were affinity based, whether by being the same ethnicity or by attending the same undergraduate school, showed dramatically worse results over their ability-based counterparts.
Partnerships that were affinity based seemed to suffer from groupthink. Without the contentious decision-making process that arises when different personalities approach a problem together, these people tended to perform worse after their investment.
Finding a partner different than oneself is difficult if we’re surrounded by like-minded people and those with similar backgrounds. Fortunately, certain environments can facilitate these coveted partnerships. For the comedians of the eighties, the Improv was that unusual environment. Everyone from Adam Sandler to Sarah Silverman got their start in this Hell’s Kitchen comedy club.
Numerous comedians recall the unfamiliar electricity of the club, the feeling that they were in the midst of a special atmosphere. Places like the Improv where outcasts and creatives can meet are ideal for finding a partner because the balance of community and competition allows people to seek out a partner who would typically be out of their comfort zones.
But this isn’t the only type of environment where partnerships foster — we all can’t be lucky enough to stumble into the defining watering hole of a subculture.
When Lars Ulrich, a punkish Danish teenager, was thrown into Orange County, California, he recalled in an interview with Joshua Shenk, author of The Powers of Two, seeing a sea of “five hundred kids in pink Lacoste shirts.” But in this sea was one other musician interested in the same type of New Wave rock that was taking over England — a pesky, quiet kid by the name of James Hetfield. What Hetfield lacked in presence in his day-to-day life, he more than made up for when creating music. Together they would form the band Metallica and sell over 100 million records worldwide.
When two people sense a connection defined by hostility from the mainstream, the same electricity can spark as it would in a more homogenous group. Regardless of the type of environment, finding one is integral for any creative seeking the yin to their yang.
For a partnership to reach its pinnacle, like Seinfeld and David’s did, it’s simply not enough to have polarity in a relationship or meet at the right place — those are just perquisites to the coup de grâce. The sense of two people against the world is the recurring theme in highly creative duos.
When the show was just beginning to air its pilot, network executives pulled the all-too-typical Hollywood move of rewriting the script. New characters were introduced and a certain hokeyness was added to the plot. David, refusing to do something that went against his character, pulled what would become a signature move — he quit.
This was the quintessential point of no return. At the time, Seinfeld could have found a more experienced writer or a savvier producer, but he doubled down on his partnership and made Larry the executive producer of the show. Partners can strengthen their resolve and continue to push back against the outside world or break from their other half and let the outside world into the process.
It would be years before Seinfeld became a hit. For four years Seinfeld and David had an uphill battle in getting their scripts through the network executives. But by the fourth season, Seinfeld became the epicenter of water-cooler conversation by introducing “yada yada,” “double-dipping a chip,” and other Seinfeldisms into popular culture.
The early phases of creative partnerships are its defining moments. It’s where roles congeal, trust is solidified, and dialect is set. Partnerships clearly evolve over time, and unfortunately we see many of the greatest partnerships inevitably falter. But if a creative is faced with writing another long-winded list of goals or seeking their creative partner, the choice is clear.
You can find more of these writings at Habits and Design. Habits and Design looks at self mastery at the intersection of culture and data. Sign up and receive an in-depth step by step guide on how to find your creative partner this year.