Creative Couples - Dave and Jen Cooper

creative couples interview creativity collaboration

A few weeks ago I started a new series where I interview creative couples. 

This isn't some buffed and polished series where you see only unicorns and fairy dust  - this is where you'll get to know some amazingly talented couples and learn the HOW of creating art AND making a life - together.

Because this is real life romance - and it tugs at my heartstrings a LOT more than the glitter-y, instagram-y, la la la life is a fairytale. I mean, I wanna know how it works. 

Some collaborate together, some don't. Some have kids. Some don't. All have a lot to share about making it work.

First up we met Aidan and Elan Morgan. And today I'm super excited to introduce Jen and Dave Cooper. I could go ON and on about how talented they are and how they inspire me but I'll let them tell us about themselves.

Remember, they didn't share their answers with each other - this'll be the first time they read each other's interview! (Dave's answers are first and Jen's are in italics).

Jen Cooper Dave Cooper creative couples

Who are you and what do you do? How long have you been together?

I’m Dave Cooper. I’m a photographer and filmmaker. My wife and I have been together for more than 21 years, married for more than 13. We met right after I graduated from high school. I like to say that I was her high school sweetheart.

I am Jen, one half of "Dave and Jen". I'm also a blogger and a host of a PBS online video series. Dave and I have been together for 21 years.

What are your strengths? What are your partner's strengths? How do they help you work together when you are collaborating?

I think you have to be in a really healthy place to recognize your strengths. Luckily, you found me on a good day. 

I’m meticulous about details. That helps me ensure that I’m not wasting my time at the beginning of a project. Unfortunately, it also means sometimes I stutter step before I start. 

Jen “completes me.” She’s the yin to my yang. She gets motivated, and moves immediately. She doesn’t stop to worry about this possible stumbling block, or that potential delay. 

Our different approaches can cause tension because while I’m processing getting started on a collaborative project, she’s ready to go, GO, GO! Ultimately, it’s a huge benefit for both of us.

We’re definitely stronger together, than apart.

Hmm, my strengths… I am a great problem solver, excellent in a last minute pinch and have a natural curiosity about the world and people. 

As for Dave, his eye for design and composition is beyond, he's an amazing story teller and he's incredibly disciplined. Oh and did I mention he's an incredible photographer and filmmaker? 

Now how does this all come into play when we're collaborating? I like to think that it becomes a marriage of beauty and substance. 

What have you learned from your partner?

This is kind of hard to answer. I learn things from Jen by observing her. How she approaches problems, challenges, and even people. When it comes to reading people, she has the best instincts of anyone I know. I can honestly say she has never been wrong about someone. She can spot a wonderful person from across the globe (thanks, internets), and see a bullshitter within a few seconds of meeting them. I can’t say I’ve gained this Jedi-like skill by watching her, but I have learned to trust her instincts.

She’s has taught me to trust my gut.

To not overthink things, you know? She’s also convinced me I’m better at what I do than I think I am.

So much. There are the tangible things like, Dave taught me how to use photoshop, illustrator and work with natural light to take better photos. Then there are the  less tangible things like, the power of following your dreams, perseverance and how to value your work. 

What are you most impressed by/proud of your partner?

The first thing that comes to mind is how she has grown her site Classic Play into a successful, living, breathing thing. She’s super modest about it even at home with me. You’d think she’d cast off the modesty at home and beat her chest proudly but she doesn’t. She should though. She’s got reason to.

But the thing that I’m most proud of her for is her vision for where she wants to go professionally. She’s known exactly where she’s wanted to take things for a very long time. Way back when she mentioned a few things to me that she’d like to do, I being shortsighted thought of them only as fantasy. Years later she’s doing them, or damn close. 

I suppose her vision, and the stubbornness to follow her instincts even if that means being super patient. Oh yeah, her patience is pretty amazing too. I’m soooo impatient.

So there you go. Like five things I’m “most” proud of when you only asked for one. Sorry.

Wow. Another where I want to answer, "So much!" Dave has been the breadwinner of the family. There was a period of time where I made more than him, but it was short lived. I am consistently blown away by his ability to land great clients. It's because his work is so good.

He inspires me to do better work.

How best do you support your partner and his/her goals?

I used to be Jen’s creative director, designer, photographer, and filmmaker. But that was a while ago. Now she’s doing most of those things herself. I’m watching her become all of those things, and she’s pretty great at them.

But those are all really practical things. If that’s all I was doing after 21 years of getting to know her, that’d be pretty slim. The most important thing I do is simple: I show her that I trust her to do her thing her way.* 

Being together as long as we have, things get so familiar that you wind up saying things to one another that you would NEVER say to a colleague or business partner.

Thinking of Jen as a professional who doesn’t need my unsolicited advice is a challenge. I’m a first born. So is she. We both think we can do our thing alone, but also that everyone needs our help (she might disagree with that characterization of her).

So not only do I recognize her as a completely brilliant, competent pro, I also need to make sure she knows I feel that way about her.

*This might be the first time she’s hearing this. Bad, Dave. Very bad.

Well, Dave might be better able to answer this than I can, but what I try to do is be supportive: really listening, telling him to go for it—and meaning it!, putting him in touch with others who can support him in ways I can't (e.g. other photographers), etc. 

How do you split the day-to-day administrivia?

I suck at the admin stuff. I keep decent records, but I lack a robust system for billing and accounting. Probably because I hate doing those things. So on any given day, I do whatever needs doing, when it needs doing, rather than putting it off. The best days are the ones where I have no admin duties whatsoever.

I take care of most of the kid stuff, cooking and cocktail making. He takes care of the bills, dishes and evening snack. We divide laundry and cleaning pretty equally. 

If you have children, how did you decide who does what/when re: childcare?

We have an 11 year-old daughter, and an eight-year old son. Jen winds up dealing with 90% of the school related things, probably because I was usually working out of the house. She’s also got the mind for it with her background in early childhood development and education. If there’s an area that I suck in as a father, it’s the school-related activities. Oh, and organizing playdates, etc. While I’ve got the loving them part down, I’m still working on the rest.

I step in whenever they need me. Typically, if Jen has a meeting or something that means she can’t do something for/with the kids and their school I make time in my schedule to handle it. But as much as it pains me to sound so old-fashioned (and not in a good way), she really does keep the family going. 

My head is always in work and I have a hard time transitioning out of that mindset and into family life. I’m working on it.

I’m a work in progress. I do like to think I make up for my shortcomings with housework. I do a lot of housework.

Neither one of us ever assumed I'd be a stay-at-home mom. In fact when our daughter was born, I was back to work in six weeks, working full time. I really thought I wanted the full-time working career thing, but by the time I picked up Ellie from daycare, I saw her for about 2 hours before she went to bed. That wasn't working for me. When I got pregnant with our son Jonah, I remember calling Dave from work saying, I can't do this again. We crunched the numbers, saw that it was going to be incredibly tight but we'd survive, so I quit. 

Are you ever envious of each other and if so, how do you handle it?

Definitely! Certainly her vision as I mentioned earlier.

But I also envy Jen’s ability to relax—a super underrated skill. 

I stress over if the house is clean, laundry is done, the kids’ rooms are a mess. Jen can see right through that stuff and focus on what really matters. Things like watching a movie with the kids, or having a meal together. I’m thinking “That empty cardboard box has been sitting there for a week. I’ve got to put it with the recycling now."

I don't know about Dave, but there are times I'm definitely envious of him. His passport has far more stamps in it than mine. That's probably the only thing I'm really envious of. As far as how I handle it? Hmmm…I'm still working on that. Ha! 

How do you decide whose career takes priority at different points in time? Money earning potential? Goal achievement? Time required?

So far this has not been an issue for us. Money isn’t everything, but that’s what it takes to pay our bills and when a great job comes up for one of us, it takes precedence.

However, lately we’ve begun to focus our priorities on the things that have the most potential to make us happy, not rich.

If I'm being completely honest, probably money earning potential. I mean we need to eat. We just worked hard towards being debt-free, so in theory without the money burden thing hanging over our heads, we should have more flexibility in how we decide whose career takes priority. 

Are you a goal setter? And if so, how do you figure out how to balance your goals with your partner's goals?

Sure I set goals. They don’t tend to be on a schedule though. One exception was we wanted to be credit card debt free before I turn 40 next year. We just achieved that goal. In my eyes, the freedom that gives us will allow us to do whatever we want moving forward. Don’t like the project being offered? Don’t take it. Wanna do that project that makes next to no money but makes you happy? Take it!

But when it comes to balancing my goals with Jen’s, we have always done things together. It probably helps that she was 16 and I was 17 when we got together. We chose colleges that would be close to one another. We chose jobs that allowed us to stay close to one another. And now, we’re in professions that allow us to work together on projects.

Our careers are great, but our relationship trumps them every time. 

I’m not saying we don’t work our asses off; we both do. We’re creators and that means we almost feel physically ill when we’re not creating. I know I feel mentally down when I’m not working on a project. But work is a necessity. Luckily for Jen and me, we both love what we do.

I'm not, but Dave and I are super honest with each other and don't shy away from difficult conversations about where we are and how we feel (getting back to that jealously thing you mentioned earlier).

I think the open and honest communication that we have allows us to reassess and balance our goals. 

What advice do you have for other couples?

I’m not sure I can give advice to other couples. It took Jen and I years to get to a point where we function as well as we do. If I can be objective (I think I can) there were two key changes that made this easier. 

First, while we clearly recognized the talent in the other all along, but the change was that we recognized the ability for each of us to make a living doing what it is that we do. We weren’t just "havin' fun.” 

And second, when we began getting clients that were paying us to collaborate, that made a HUGE difference. Suddenly, we couldn’t argue about doing a project this way or that. My way or her way. We had to do it in a way that pleased us, but also our client. That took some of the pressure off. It was like that yin and yang thing again. 

Or maybe one of those cliché split heart necklaces that make a heart only when together. Awww. I just threw up a little.

Oh, and stay together. All you need is love. Love is all you need.

Hmm… this is hard for me because I know every relationship is different and Dave and I have the unique experience of being together for so long, but I'll try to share some things we've learned:

It's okay if you don't work well together in the beginning.

It doesn't mean that you're doomed, it just means you still have stuff to figure out. You'll save time if you each agree to what roles you'll play.

Play to each of your strengths—recognize your strengths and those of your partner. 

Be honest with each other, even when it's difficult. 

Set a time that you both check out from work and childrearing for the evening. Do something that you can enjoy as a couple: watch a movie, have a drink, make out! 

Love them both. Love them as a couple. Feeling inspired yet?