Team player

This has been a week of reflection for me for several reasons. I’ve been thinking about what constraints are necessary for me to be successful. After reviewing situations in which I achieved great things in the past, I realized that a common element of those situations was being part of a team I cared about.

I like being on teams. It makes sense because I think by talking, and being on a team means I always have somebody to ping with ideas. Being part of a team means I’m part of a cognitive construct that is larger than just myself, and the construct literally has to talk to think (that’s a bit of a stretch, but think of Cognition in the Wild, by Edwin Hutchins, where he uses the case study of a navigational team to study cognition).

I work best on teams for other reasons. One of my strengths is an ability to bridge communication gaps between different disciplines. I can serve as an “impedance matcher” by talking to everybody on the team and making sure that information gets to where it needs to go. Obviously, this skill lies unused when I work by myself.

When I’m on a team, I feel a responsibility to others that I don’t necessarily feel to myself. If I’m performing an individual task and I don’t do a good job, then I’m only affecting myself. I can decide that I don’t care enough about the impact on my standing and give up or slack off. When I’m on a team, I have a responsibility to my teammates to do a good job that motivates me far more than my own welfare. It’s probably unhealthy, but my psyche is constructed such that disappointing others is worse than disappointing myself.

To take a specific example, Junior Lab, an experimental class for physics majors, was among the hardest classes that MIT had to offer. And I crushed it. Even though I struggled to get Bs in many of my other physics classes, I got a solid A and a recommendation for grad school out of Junior Lab. Part of it was that the class emphasized lab work rather than theory, but the real difference was that Junior Lab was done with a partner. I was willing to put in 40 hours a week on that class to make sure that Kent and I got good results, whereas in my other physics classes, I’d give up at a certain point because I just didn’t care enough about my own grades.

I had a similar experience in sports. I was a tennis player in high school. Tennis is a brutal sport for a perfectionist, because every point matters. A one point swing is huge in a game to four points. And each game matters because the set is only to six games. So every time I made a mistake and lost a point, the consequences loomed large. And I would stress so much about those consequences that I wouldn’t be able to function in competition. On the practice court, I could hold my own with our high school’s best player. In match play, I couldn’t even beat our worst player.

In college and later, I switched to team sports, first volleyball and then ultimate frisbee. Having teammates calmed me down, because I couldn’t afford to freak out and throw a tantrum when I had teammates counting on me. I had a responsibility to others, and that made all the difference.

I also like being part of something greater than myself. I don’t know if it’s being brought up in a Midwestern culture where showing off is frowned upon, but I’m uncomfortable with bragging about achievements, or sometimes even with the idea that I’ve achieved anything at all. Being part of a team means that I can take pride in sharing its achievements without triggering those neuroses about showing off.

Good teams are more than the sum of their individual members. The CellKey team was forced to work cooperatively because none of us knew enough about each others’ specialties for a leader to take charge. Developing that trust in each other allowed us to create something that leveraged all of our collective expertise. Such team success is a dual achievement – not only did the team succeed in its goals, but building a successful team is an achievement in itself.

Similarly, my favorite team in the two years I played in SFUL was a team without any stars (Hot Pink Optimator!). There was nobody on that team that was recognized as a great player in that league. But we each had skills to contribute and we figured out how to put those skills together. Plus, we liked each other and hung out after games together, which helped create camaraderie. In the season championship game, we were up against a team that had two of the best players in the league, a team that had rolled its way through the playoffs to that point. And we crushed them. We knew that if we could shut those guys down, their team would stop functioning because their teammates were reliant on them. Whereas our team was far more distributed, because everybody on our team played an important role.

I need to remember I function best and achieve more when I’m part of a team I like. If I want to do something, I should join a team that’s trying to do that rather than trying to go it alone. I’m also placing this in the management category because it reminds me of the motivational power of teams in getting people to do better work. It’s tricky creating teams that are more than the sum of their parts, but wonderful things happen when it works.

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