Friday, January 20, 2006

Working with a partner

My business partner asked me to explore the difference between partnership and other kinds of collaborations. Since the word 'partner' has become a widely-used verb to describe almost any kind of mutually beneficial activity, I'm going to start by defining my terms. My husband, for instance, is my husband and the love-of-my-life. That relationship encompasses partnership but is not limited to it. My clients are also not my partners, although I might partner with them in limited ways on defined projects, and although I pull from them the effort they need to make in order to reach their goals.

I was not someone who easily embraced the concept of partnership. I hated group projects in school, because I was ambitious and competitive and the marks my group could achieve were seldom as high as the results I would get on my own. Now I understand that had more to do with the nature of the assignments and the group process than it did on the nature of partnerships.

My current partner is my partner because: 1) we share common ground; 2) he makes me better at what I do; and 3) I make him better at what he does. We do have complementary strengths and we do cover for each other when necessary, but that is not the point of our partnership. The point of our partnership is that we cover ground together that would be inaccessible to either of us alone, and we do it because working in relationship makes each of us stronger at what we already do well. We have a very tight commitment to each other because the best interests of the partnership are also in our individual best interests.

Often, this means that my partner irritates me. Like the sand irritates the oyster. Creativity and growth depend on being irritated, on becoming uncomfortable in what used to be a safe bed. Not all irritation produces pearls and not all discomfort ends with growth. The glory of partnership is having someone around who makes you uncomfortable in precisely the most productive ways. Someone, to change the metaphor, who knows how to fertilize the soil even when it changes your growth rate and makes you want more than you wanted the day before.

We are so thoroughly ourselves that we become experts at making ourselves comfortable. Some of us even become experts at being comfortable about being uncomfortable - those people inhabit a state of perpetual irritation because it seems like the right thing to do. In either event, we can grow as far and as tall as we can - and still not have the capacity to fertilize the soil around us or to make a pearl without a grain of sand. Something from outside is necessary if we are to experience precisely the irritation we need to discover that our world is bigger than we thought.

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