Friday, August 14, 2015

Slaying Dragons Together: Our (True) Story of Teamwork

The “self-made man” -- you see him everywhere. Whether it be literature, television, film, or music, the myth of the mighty individual defying all odds (without any help whatsoever) is everywhere.

This archetype makes for compelling drama, and is perhaps the most utilized theme in the history of American media. It’s fun to root for the little guy, the rugged and determined hero who straps up his boots and climbs a mountain by himself, slaying the dragons of circumstance along the way, only to bask in glory atop the summit.

It feels good to see this hero succeed. It makes us feel like we too can conquer our demons, if only we are as brave as our mountain-climbing, dragon-slaying hero. But, in reality, this is a very destructive idea.

Retract that gasp, and allow me to explain: there’s nothing wrong with pride in individual achievement; one must always believe in oneself and live courageously if one is to succeed in this life. However -- the idea that success is achieved solely through self-determination? Nonsense. There’s no doubt that self-confidence is absolutely, positively, one-hundred-and-fifty percent vital to one’s success, but let’s not confuse a vital ingredient for the entire recipe.

Success is a multi-faceted, elusive beast-- much too complicated to be charged at with one mindset! Returning to our hero analogy, no two “mountains of circumstance” are alike. Some are taller than others; some narrower. Some house dragons; others malicious giants. Some heroes are provided better equipment; others might have very little.

And, of course, you know all of this. You've heard this story before; the variety of circumstance means we can see this story play out in so many different ways. But one thing remains common in these kinds of stories -- the hero always succeeds on his merits alone. Sure, there might be companions along the way, but they are mere scenery, there only to behold and comment upon his might.

The hero rarely asks for help -- he either orders his inferiors to do the dirty work (usually an “honor” for them, so he’s really doing them the favor) or he is so benevolent and mighty that people do so without being asked.

But think to yourself: how many times have you accomplished something without soliciting the help of another person?

It is true that some journeys are lonelier than others. But if you are being honest with yourself, you’d see all of the help -- large or small, noticeable or hidden -- you have received from others. Think about the little things you’ve done to help others succeed. Think about the big things you’ve done to help others succeed.

And so, when one starts to dissect our hero’s story, we see that its relation to reality is shaky at best (and not just because of the dragons, which I assure you exist). When you consider the important roles others have played in your life, it seems the absolute height of conceit to declare your success entirely self-made.

Despite the abundance of egocentric-to-the-maximum stories, we are still capable of seeing that there are many heroes in every story -- some noticed, some unnoticed, helping each other scale the dangerous terrain together.

And you know what? There’s nothing wrong with that. Teamwork does not in any way diminish your personal achievements; admitting you have had help along the way doesn’t make your success less impressive and you don’t have to be any less proud of your successes because you've had friends to help you realize your visions. And you know that you’ve helped others achieve their dreams, too.

Isn’t that a great feeling? You get double the joy.

So, what does all this have to do with business? Everything. Nowhere is the “mighty individual” story line more prevalent than in the business world. Sometimes we believe and invest ourselves in the myth, buying into the idea that all “unsuccessful” (a loaded term, to be sure) or "unhappy" people are the way they are because they are petulant little minor characters, too lazy or weak or uninspired to climb the mountain. Not exactly an inspiring sentiment, right?

What's particularly damaging about this myth is the effect it has on so many trying to achieve their dreams. Too many individuals close themselves off to accepting a helping hand, simply out of pride. And of course they become frustrated in their isolation, and wonder why they have failed to live up to our hero's impossible feats.

Well, there's good news: you don't have to do it all alone.

Despite what you might have read, seen, or heard, all of those successful people you aspire to had help along the way. It doesn't make them any less inspiring.

To paraphrase the great Kurt Vonnegut: there are no minor characters in real life.

Remember that each and every one of us is going through our own story. Remember that our individual stories intersect with the stories of all of the people we meet. Surely, it can be easy to forget that the clerk at the grocery store or the coworker you never talk to are protagonists of their own rich and compelling stories. But try to be aware. We would all benefit to remember that, though a person seems small in your story, she is quite important in her story and in the stories of others. Some people might be in the crisis of their novel; others may be experiencing a much-deserved resolution. Whatever the scene, we are all of us vital to each others' narratives.

A group of self-centered protagonists living entirely in their own personal stories accomplishes little, but a team of cooperative, caring characters (each and every one of them protagonists) contributing to one another’s stories -- this team will get results. A team-positive mindset will get you up that mountain much faster, and your story (and stories) won’t be any less interesting for it.


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  1. There are no words to describe how insightful and on point this blog is. This should be required reading for every person leading a team of people.

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Perkinsandme. I am happy to know it resonated with you.