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Collaborative Superpowers and Kryptonite

We all have at least one superpower, along with our own personal kryptonite — the thing we do amazingly well and the thing that gets under our skin or triggers our biggest weakness. 

One of the things that makes superhero team-ups fun is that one hero’s superpower makes it possible for them to rescue another hero from the one thing they’re susceptible too — like Batman has repeatedly saved Superman from kryptonite. (Batman also has his own stash of kryptonite, just in case Superman ever loses his shit…but since most of us creative types don’t have laser-vision or super-strength, so you’ll probably never have to stop your writing partner from turning supervillain.)

The Cost of Ignoring Your Superpowers

For the first few years of Sterling & Stone, Dave made all but two of our covers. This was a godsend. When we started, we were publishing serials every week, without an established industry to support our endeavor. It’s easy enough now to find a cover designer who will work with a template, a weekly schedule, and a modest budget. But back then, our budget was practically nothing and weekly releases added up fast. I had just left copywriting and consulting to write fiction full-time with zero safety net while sharing all my money with Dave. Since I had nothing coming in, I used my savings to keep us afloat.

But Dave kept doing our covers even after we could afford to outsource. Because he was good enough. There were times he would spend as long on a cover as he would on an episode from one of our series, trying to perfect it, working hard to ensure we didn’t look like amateurs in front of our readers or peers. 

Once we got Dave out of covers and all the other miscellanea that came with running a studio, he could finally focus on what he was best at. Telling stories. 

Dave thinks his genius — when he’s willing to accept the accolades — lies in writing the rough draft of those stories. 

But after writing with Dave for five years, I disagreed. For the half-decade after that, he fought me when I suggested that I write some of our drafts. Fortunately, Dave now understands his genius isn’t in writing rough drafts, but in making up the stories themselves. It doesn’t matter which ones I write and which ones he does, as long as Dave is the story’s architect.

Ever since that simple discovery, Dave has become a happier, healthier, more productive writer, and an exponentially-better collaborator. 

What Superpower Can You Contribute to Your Collaborations?

A superpower isn’t something you love or feel like you were born to do. It’s something you excel at without even trying. When you put effort into this thing, you blow others away by how easy you make it look, and they often wish they could do what you do.

We believe everyone has a superpower. 

To identify yours, ask yourself, what is something that’s easy for me that other people seem surprised by?

One of my superpowers is generating ideas. I seriously didn’t know that was difficult for other people until a few years ago, because it’s always been easy for me. Being in masterminds gave me the first glimpse of this truth, but it wasn’t until I was constantly surrounded by people who generate ideas for a living and still conjuring the lion’s share that I realized how rare the superpower of ideation actually is. Now I see the generation and execution of ideas as part of my responsibility, leveraging my superpower for the studio’s benefit.

But because my ideas are big and plenty, I drop balls and leave things scattered. We need people with superpowers that make them good at juggling the details. I might be brilliant at starting something, but I can be sloppy when it comes to finishing. Without my collaborators to counteract my weaknesses, fewer things would get done.

Superpowered collaboration leads to superior results. Once you’ve identified your superpowers (you might have more than one), look for collaborators with complementary gifts. Here are some examples of superpowers you might have:

You can see around corners. That might mean identifying holes in a story that others might not see, or predicting real-life problems that would catch most people unaware. Seeing around corners helps you solve problems ahead of time, before they can slow you down.

You’re a futurist. Some people are naturally better at predicting tomorrow. We’re all guessing, but because futurists are using instincts and criteria cultivated across a lifetime of paying closer attention, your guesses are actually educated extrapolations. You might be great at deciding what kinds of stories people might read tomorrow or discovering fresh ways to find new readers to consume them.

You’re a character designer. I love this particular superpower, and wish I was better at it. I use an exhaustive list of questions called character DNA to get a feel for who my characters are. Over time this has grown more natural, but it’s still something I need to deeply think about. But if this is your superpower, you have a more innate understanding than most writers of what drives people, how their emotional damage limits them, and how to create chemistry between them in a story. 

You’re a story architect. Most authors intuitively understand that every well-told story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. But the story architect can read the patterns inside a story like lines of code within a program and hack them to craft a superior narrative. If that’s you, congratulations. You and the character designer can hang out at the popular table. If this isn’t your superpower, maybe you can offer to buy one of them lunch. 

You’re a designer. Some people are brilliant with language, bringing their ideas to life through words. Others are visual and use canvases of shapes, textures, and colors to convey the magic in their heads. Working with someone who’s more visually-minded can help you to see your story and its world in layers and colors you might not have explored otherwise. If this is your superpower, you might use it to write enticing descriptions of world elements, or to create graphics for back matter in your books or marketing materials.

You’re a worldbuilder. Not all visually-minded people are automatically worldbuilders, but worldbuilders tend to think visually, like designers. If this is your superpower, align yourself with writers who can fill your worlds with their stories. If it’s not your superpower, collaborate with a worldbuilder who can help you create a world that enhances the emotional power of your characters’ journey.

You’re a breeder of BIG ideas. This is the person with the superpower to conjure high-concept story ideas out of nowhere, the kind that Hollywood has been known to write large checks for without even seeing a script. But big ideas often don’t make it to full fruition, because there’s a big difference between idea and execution, and if you have this superpower, you probably need some help figuring out how to flesh your big idea out into a story.

You’re great at connecting the dots. If this is your superpower, you can see the big picture, but you can also zoom in and create the chains of cause and effect and the character relationships that tie the story together and empower all its meaningful moments. Without you, the big ideas collapse in on themselves, which means that the best version of the story never gets told, if the story gets told at all.

You’re a deep listener. Most story rooms will probably have a mix of loud and quiet storytellers, and the loud ones get most the attention. But the quiet ones hear things that no one else does, and they’re better at reading the subtext in what everyone else is saying. If this is your superpower, you might need to deliver your contributions after the brainstorming meeting is over and you’ve had a chance to think things through. And if you’re collaborating with a deep listener, be sure to ask them for their insights after you’ve given them a few hours — or a day — to put it all together.

You’re a skilled interviewer. If interviewing is your superpower, you know exactly which question to ask in order to bring out the best ideas or to get everyone in the room to articulate what they’re thinking or feeling clearly. You probably also know how to put the pieces together as a story starts to emerge, seeing the holes in the pattern that still need to be filled. You give others the gift of clarity, because you know how to bring unconscious knowledge up to the surface of a conversation where it can be shared with everyone.

You’re an organizing expert. I’m only organized when I need to be. I fill my life with tiny systems to outsmart the worst of my tendencies. When it was just me, Johnny, and Dave, my systems were enough. But as we brought more people in, things got harder and harder to manage — until we met Niamh, our organizing expert. 

It’s not uncommon for organizing experts to undervalue their superpower. It seems obvious to you how everything should be arranged and in what order things should be done to keep the collaboration running smoothly, but it’s not obvious to anyone else. One tweak from you can make it easier for everyone else to do their jobs. Whether you are overseeing story bibles, the production process, or an ad campaign, your ability to keep things organized is like a Midas touch that makes everything golden.

You’re an analyst. If this is your superpower, you have the analytical powers required to break other people’s stories down to see why they work (so you can learn from them) or don’t (so you can help fix them). Or if you enjoy the marketing side of things, your analytical skills can make you a wizard at tweaking ad campaigns to make them more effective or interpreting your audience’s reaction to book one so you can tailor the second book to their tastes. Your critical thinking can skyrocket a stalled project or turn disaster into success.

You’re a genius at getting things done. If this is your superpower, it doesn’t matter how long the task list is, you’re never intimidated by how much there is to do. You’re able to prioritize and power through your queue, gaining momentum as you check things off. Other people might call you a “machine,” but they might not appreciate how hard you work to focus your attention and manage the practical details involved in bringing each task to completion. You’re able to manage your energy and emotional state at a higher level than most people, at least once you get into work mode. 

You’re a champion. If this is your superpower, you’re the one who suits up and enters the battlefield when someone must fight for the project. You’re not afraid of conflict — you recognize that sometimes it’s necessary to win the day. When someone needs to spend three hours on the phone escalating a problem to the person who can solve it, your dogged persistence wins the day. And when an outsider tries to push one of your people around, you’re the first to stand up to them. Champions aren’t always the people you expect them to be. Sometimes they look like fighters, but other times they’re the quiet ones who simply refuse to be intimidated or pushed around.

You’re a producer. People in the film industry don’t like it when you apply the word “production” to books in the way we regularly use it. (We learned this firsthand during our first few months of meetings in Hollywood.) We were throwing the word around awfully lightly for something we made at our desks, with laughably tiny budgets. Hollywood isn’t entirely wrong, but there’s also a present-day misunderstanding about the way literature can be produced. 

The more people you bring into a collaboration, the more you’ll need someone who can see the big picture and usher it through the execution phase to completion. If this is your superpower, you have a talent for greasing the wheels of production, helping others work together without friction, and planning ahead to avoid speed bumps that could cause a project to be over budget or miss a deadline.

You’re a Jack or Jill of All Trades. If this is your superpower, you learn quickly and you’re mentally flexible, comfortable switching from one task to the next so you can handle whatever needs to be done. You’re also gifted with the ability to get up to speed quickly so you can do most jobs competently. You understand what everyone else does as well as how all the different parts of the process fit together. Your ability to fill in for anyone or train new collaborators on the basics makes you a valuable team member.

You’re a diplomat. If this is your superpower, you’re able to negotiate difficult interpersonal conflict, translate between people who are struggling to speak each other’s language, and make peace when things aren’t going smoothly. You can see any situation from multiple perspectives, but you also see the common ground that ties them all together.   

You can always see the win-win scenarios. To others, it seems like you’ve magically pulled the perfect solution out of a hat, but it’s your ability to understand what each person wants and to see the opportunities that others are missing that allow you to find the win-win. Outside-the-box thinking is one of your specialties.

You’re a reframer. If reframing problematic situations or beliefs is your superpower, you’ve got an almost miraculous ability to change the room’s emotional temperature by shifting the general perspective. While everyone else is mired in their assumptions, you’re able to question what you know and try on different perspectives until you find the one that allows everyone to move forward, whether they’re solving a story problem or a real-life conundrum.

Others can usually see your superpowers before you can. Same for your kryptonite. 

Kryptonite is a weakness that no amount of willpower can correct — the only way to fight your kryptonite is to cultivate the self-awareness to avoid it when possible, and to ask for others’ help in counteracting it when avoidance isn’t possible. Superman does everything in his power to avoid kryptonite, because no matter how much he’d like to be stronger, it’s not a mind-over-matter kind of problem. It’s a laws-of-comic-book-physics problem.

Your kryptonite might be related to your superpower, but it isn’t always.

Maybe your superpower is having the big ideas, but your kryptonite is not knowing how or when to say no. That’s a lethal combination — ask me how I know.

But a big-idea person might also be a disciplined thinker whose kryptonite might be an unwillingness to take feedback on their ideas or to consider others’ ideas valid.

If your superpower is designing brilliant, complex strategies but your kryptonite is that you feel overwhelmed when it comes time to execute on them, no amount of determination is going to make you immune to that overwhelm. But partnering with someone whose superpower is being an executer frees you up to come up with the next strategy.

To identify your kryptonite, start by following your trail of mistakes. What problems have you been unable to solve, no matter how hard you try? What mistakes do you find yourself making over and over again?

Once you’ve identified your kryptonite, don’t make the mistake of thinking that you’ll overcome it by trying harder the next time. Make a plan for how you’ll recognize that you’re falling prey to it, and how you’ll shut it down or ask someone else to pull you away from it.

Your kryptonite can be difficult to figure out because you can’t see yourself with the same outside perspective that others can. If you’re struggling to see it, ask someone who knows you well and is willing to give you honest feedback. (Also, promise that you won’t take it personally if their feedback is unflattering — and keep your word. If you need to insulate yourself by asking for the feedback in writing rather than verbally so you have time to process your ego’s knee-jerk reaction before you respond with a thank you, do what you need to.)

It’s important to understand the difference between a weakness and kryptonite. A weakness is something you might not be especially good at, but it won’t destroy you. Kryptonite can leave you broken, and at its worst, done for good. 

See you next Wednesday!