I believe in collaboration. Autonomy has its merits, but I think it’s overrated.
I learned about collaboration before I could give it a name. Growing up on a farm in a large family in Wisconsin, everything we did required a tag team. We washed laundry together with a wringer machine and pinned it on clotheslines that zigzagged from garage to shed. We harvested sweet corn and peas and shucked them on the porch. We set the table for up to 14 and then did dishes as a clan. Those daily chores could get tedious, but in the main we made them fun. We told each other jokes and sang about coming ‘round the mountain and working on the railroad all the livelong day. Sure, we bickered at times, but we learned what it means to stick together.
I’ve spent most of my work life doing jobs that benefit from collaboration. When a brainstorm session kicks into full swing, it’s hard to pinpoint who suggested the concept or layout or game plan you end up running with. As an editor working with an author, or vice versa, I often collaborate with someone as wordsmiths, hammering and polishing until a document reads just right.
I believe that collaboration cures the sting of too much rugged individualism. I believe that “many hands make light work,” whether the work is raking leaves or facing a crisis. I believe that pitching in can save the day and transform any situation and the people involved, whether it’s a couple, a family, a crew, a committee, a choir, or a community. I believe in barn raisings, quilting bees, painting parties, grassroots efforts, potluck gatherings, and fundraisers for a good cause.
In the best collaborations, we bring varied skills, insights, and personalities to a task, and then check our egos enough to let in a new idea, a more efficient method, an unexpected nuance. Along the way, we may disagree, wince, resist, jockey for position. We may fear losing something if we’re not in control of the outcome. But when collaborations succeed, we sense we could never have achieved a result as far-reaching or magical on our own.
As I wrote the first draft of this essay, I knew I would call a dear friend to get her feedback, as she often does when she puts pen to page. I believe every friendship grows out of collaboration, just as our American democracy evolved out of a collectively cobbled constitution. I believe we’re all better off when we realize that we don’t have to go it alone.
My siblings and I still share spirited collaborations as we connect by phone, e-mail, and as often as possible in person. During our mother’s final days, we gathered around her and shared the process of keeping vigil. We told jokes and sang songs about working on railroads and coming around mountains. We all turned another corner together. In the end, many hands made that work lighter, too.
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