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Is Wonder the Key Player in Creative Collaboration?

Mabel Dodge knew something about putting talented, engaging people from different backgrounds and creative media in the same room. With the right atmosphere and combination of people, ideas could ignite that might inspire creative action (including, yes, a few love affairs).

This New York socialite left the Manhattan glitter in the 1920s for the stark yet stunning frontier of Taos, New Mexico. There she fell not only for the light and mountains but also for a tall, strapping native named Tony Luhan.

Together they built what I consider to be an adobe farmhouse with several rooms to house an astounding array of creative innovators – Georgia O’Keeffe, Ansel Adams, D.H. Lawrence, Willa Cather, Carl Jung among them. In that house is, essentially, where Taos became known as the Southwest’s epicenter for creative activity.

The house is now called the Mabel Dodge Luhan House, and it’s where every March I gather an impressive group of creatives. This year so far, the group includes designers, photographers, a textile worker, and a host of writers of all ilks. We’ll be tracking wonder, both in solitude and in collaboration.

Collaboration, it turns out, is essential for creative productivity and innovation.

Creative professionals and practitioners often think they must suffer their projects alone. They’re often mistaken. True, we writers, designers, and creative entrepreneurs thrive on solitude. But creative collaboration plus a deep connection with the world around you offers a combination that can sustain you through the vagaries of a creative project and a creative life.

And for the corporate team members, design firm members, educators, and consultancy firm members among us – your being able to collaborate optimally is one of your key attributes.

the dazzling duo

In fact, several psychologists now examine social creativity – the dynamics of how the Lennon and McCartneys or the Michelangelos and Medicis of the world flourish.

The emotional mix you “produce” in collaboration make up the brunt of what Seth Godin calls “emotional labor.”

How do we connect? How do we contribute optimally in collaboration?

More than love, more than joy, more than any emotional experience, wonder opens us. It opens our body’s windows – our senses – to dried leaves floating like brown snow onto the lawn. It opens our hearts to a stranger on a bus or to a baggage-toting relative. It opens our minds to the ideas of a co-worker we previously had pigeonholed. It opens that portal to our own true self’s possibilities and to what matters most in this one wild life.

What You Can Do to Get Cracked Open in Creative Collaboration:

Learn to Listen. Good ideas need space to roam. In Tracking Wonder programs, we enact collaborative brainstorming and practice deep, receptive listening. You can practice asking, “Is there anything else you’d like to explore?” Practice asking questions more than inserting your knowledge. If you hear your own mind racing with what it wants to say next, quiet it by focusing part of your mind on your breath’s rhythms.

Focus on Ideas not Yourself. I have the good fortune to spend much of my week talking with interesting people working on cool projects. And I have to remind myself to stay out of the way of my client conversations.

People who have more substantive conversations about ideas report being happier than those who don’t. Nothing shuts down a good flow conversation that could lead to great ideas than bragging, self-analyzing, or otherwise redirecting the topic back to yourself. When you notice your ego begging for attention, step back in your mind and remember the big idea, the project, the creative problem at hand. Let wonder in.

Open Up Instead of Size Up. In brainstorming sessions and collaborative sessions, it’s common for Survivor Brain to size up your potential collaborators. Survivor Brain pigeonholes, labels, and writes off. If threatened in a competition of ideas, Survivor Brain attacks or criticizes. Often nearly unconscious prejudices can keep you from recognizing the potential value in someone else’s idea.

If you hear your Survivor Brain whispering insults to you about your potential collaborators, whisper back, “Open up, instead of size up. Open up, instead of size up.” Imagine the space between you and your collaborator as a continuum of ideas. It’s up to you to keep that continuum open and fertile with possibility. See the person before you anew.

Wonder Talk can be invaluable not only in idea generation but also in idea execution. (more on wonder talk: PsyToday and 3highlights.com)

Connect Outside Your Field. What does golden seal have to do with writing fiction? Well, my wife is an expert in Chinese medicine and community medicine. If I want feedback on a character who flourishes in dark rooms, she’s likely to tell me about an herb like golden seal that thrives in shady woods. That analogy in turn might lead me to riff on gold and golden seal and to further research the herb to see what might feed my story’s texture. None of my writer friends could offer that kind of fertile collaboration.

Creative habitats thrive on idea-diversity
the way environmental habits thrive on eco-diversity.

What can you learn from a photographer? A designer? A writer? A textile worker? A therapist? A sociologist at a Tracking Wonder event?

One of Frans Johannson’s contributions to the field of innovation and creative collaboration is what he calls the Medici Effect – the name of his book that teems with insightful ideas and useful tools. His convincing premise is that during the Italian Renaissance, artists, architects, and poets thrived in part because the Medici family’s funds and social orientation brought figures in seemingly separate fields together. And early 20th-century salons, by the way, led to such innovators as Picasso, poet Jean Cocteau, and musician Eric Satie working together on the ballet Parade. Again, Mabel knew this.

Yesterday’s salons find form in coworking environments among creative professionals. As part of the coworking movement, a group of people in New York’s Mid-Hudson Valley where I live have developed the BEAHIVE – a collaborative workspace + community. A quotation that guides this group’s principles actually comes from Csikszentmihalyi’s book, Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention: “…an idea or product that deserves the label ‘creative’ arises from the synergy of many sources and not only from the mind of a single person.”

So reach out to other people committed to living creatively. Shape ways the two or three or four or more of you can gather regularly for creative collaboration, feedback, and support.

Take the World as Your Partner. Step outside, step outside of yourself, and you might realize that this physical world is a creative partner. For writer and Yoga as Muse Tribe facilitator Dawn Curtis, a tossed paper cocktail umbrella inspired another image for a scene in the novel she’s writing. Her piece about place appears in Orion Magazine.

When Australian Muslim Aheda Zanetti paid attention to how uncomfortable wearing heavy burqas was in the Australian waters, she listened to a great question – How could a bikini be combined with a burqa? And then she followed through and came up with an answer – the burqini, a lightweight polyester swimsuit. Her paying attention, being open to that question and its possibilities, and then following through all have led to changing the way Muslim (and even some non-Muslim) women around the world enjoy swimming. And she’s changing the way people view Muslim women.

Most great ideas are not born out of nothing;
several great ideas are born out of paying attention
and out of opening up to the physical environment around us

By the way, if you’re interested in flourishing in the ideal physical environment among a remarkably open group of creative innovators, we do have only four spots left for the Tracking Wonder retreat at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House this March 20-25. It’s our sixth year there.

We virtually take over the house, the adobe classroom, and the adobe “break-out” cottage where we have our final readings & presentations event. Within minutes, all of us shed our defenses and posturing, and get down to the business of tracking wonder.

Not a bad way to begin spring.

And by the way, if you liked this article, you might like the two Tracking Wonder handbooks. Check out the box to the right, and you can become part of the Wild Pack of wonder-trackers.

What do you think? In retrospect, how has wonder been a key partner in creative collaboration? Am I over-stating the case for wonder? What other elements are crucial to let people flourish in creative groups? What’s an example of one of your most successful, memorable experiences in creative collaboration?

See you in the woods,

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  1. Jeffrey, this sounds like a great program you run. Taos (and Santa Fe) has a creative magic about it, and creating a safe environment for sharing, collaboration and imagination, free from the Survivor Brain (welcome if a tiger is chasing you, not so welcome when at a higher Maslow level), sounds, well, wondrous.

    It’s easy for creatives to isolate themselves. It can be an important part of the creative process, but collaboration is also an amazing component.

    1. Patrick: I love your phrasing about the Survivor Brain. It’s over-active in climates where it’s just not needed. You’re right: Taos itself is a collaborator in what happens at this program. Thanks for dropping in.

      1. Glad you like it. I think a lot about what Dr. Dan Baker wrote in What Happy People Know about our brain stem, the reptilian brain, that gives us fight of flight, helpful when we lived in caves, not real helpful in higher-level self-improvement. (Oh, and love your mention of Csikszentmihalyi’s book, Creativity, big fan of him and the book.)