Some of my best work has been done in concert with others. In my twenties, another carpenter and I, Mark West, framed, closed and roofed a two story ranch house in less than a week. We were the Marks Brothers and I’m sure our work on the job site looked like it was choreographed (By the way, the World Record for building a complete three bedroom, two bath house, including foundation, roofing, finish trim, painting and landscaping is under three hours! Check out the video to see synergy in action).

Other great successes have emerged for me from synergistic partnerships as well, from the house I co-designed and built from scratch, to college courses I’ve co-created and taught, to books I’ve collaborated on with others. In corporate America, memorable partnerships abound: Jobs and Wozniak, Bill Gates and Paul Allen, Sergei Brin and Larry Page. Even movies that live readily in memory are built around synergistic partnerships: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Harold and Maude, Harold and Kumar, Lethal Weapon, Brokeback Mountain, Thelma and Louise … the list is a long one.

What is Synergy and How Can I Get Me Some?

Positive deviant, Bucky Fuller, was one of the first people to speak at length about synergy. He defined it as “the behavior of whole systems unpredicted by their parts taken separately.” He devoted much of his life to the study of “synergetics.”

Our brain is a “whole system” that fits Bucky’s definition. So are one or two other people’s brains – or ten thousand, for that matter – working in concert. And while the creative results that such synergistic collections produce often can’t be predicted, I’m pretty convinced that resonance is a critical energetic ingredient of synergy. And I’m also convinced that the alchemical mix begins – for those who end up being easy with synergy – in the nursery. The mother or father consistently tuned in to a young child’s needs begins crystallizing the mix that will one day result in ease, rather than anxiety in interacting with different people of all persuasions. As many of you who’ve been reading here for a couple of years know, this is contingent or collaborative communication. It results in hearts, brains, minds and bodies that are secure in their attachment to other human beings on this planet.

Playing Well With Others

One of the things I’m most proud of as a parent is that my daughter, Amanda has grown up with little fear of strangers. She worked for several years as a health care union recruiter, requiring her to approach strangers – low-paid hospital workers and their hospital director bosses – and sell them on the benefits of collective bargaining. She also just returned from an overseas adventure, spending several months of solo explorations in Spain, Italy and Croatia. She’s currently considering going to help out in Haiti. Somewhere along the way, she learned something that I’m still in the process of practicing: research that suggests that he or she who is kindest, survives best.

She didn’t develop this ease around strangers by accident. I think a large part of it had to do with her mother and I working diligently to regulate our own anxiety in the face of a million things that make parents stress about their children’s safety. Kids who grow up at ease around other people have a much greater chance of becoming a member of a “Great Group.” This is the term that the “Dean of Leadership Gurus,” Warren Bennis and Pat Ward Biederman describe in their book, Organizing Genius: The Secrets of Creative Collaboration. Great Groups are made up of people with similar interests who come together and bring into being something far beyond what they might create individually. “A Great Group can be a goad, a check, a sounding board, and a source of inspiration, support and even love.” Sounds like a collection of people worth getting up early in the morning to collaborate with.

Shepherding Synergy

I’m also convinced that the alchemy of synergy can be cultivated, practiced and mastered. In addition to contingent communication mentioned above, it helps if parents themselves model playing and working well with each other and with other people. How do we deal with family disagreements? How do we treat grocery clerks? Mail people? Garbage collectors? Street people (Do you go out and live among them to see what their daily life is actually like the way Bernie Glassman does)?

Finally, in virtually no time at all, the peer group becomes paramount in our children’s lives. How do we prepare them to be “in the group, but not of the group?” That is, how do we help them grow the strength and convictions to follow their own creative impulses, for example, to be counterfactual thinkers in the face of inevitable peer pressure?