Why our teamwork and individual strengths are just as important
Despite the fact that nothing important in life is done alone, we live in a culture obsessed with heroes. If you poll the public, ask people how they think a company like Tesla rose to prominence, you’ll probably hear all about Elon Musk, but not a glimpse of the team he built around him, which was essential to its success. In fact, most people can’t even name another executive or employee who works at Tesla or SpaceX. (Can you?) And if you ask the average person about the success of someone like Musk, you’ll hear that he got to the top through things like hard work, intelligence, and visionary creativity.
Typically, explanations for a person’s success consist of all sorts of individual attributes. Books that promise to improve your life are filed under “self-help.” Seminars that promise to teach you how to succeed are considered personal development. Business schools rarely teach soft skills. It’s all about me, me, me. Our individual strengths and attributes are of course central to shaping our careers, but why do we so rarely talk about the friends, allies, colleagues and even strangers who propel us along the way?
That’s partly because the idea of self-made success makes for a good story, and stories are how we deal with a messy, complex world. Good stories have a hero and a villain, a central conflict, and a resolution from which the hero or villain (usually the hero) emerges victorious. It’s easier to tell stories that overlook the surrounding cast. Superman and his ten allies don’t quite roll your tongue like that Superman Is. We’ve been telling and telling stories like these for centuries. Benjamin Franklin himself “artfully constructed his Autobiography as dazzling lessons in self-construction. Americans are especially keen to embrace the personal success story because we are a country that has long celebrated the ideal of a flamboyant John Wayne and the rugged individualism he stood for.
But tidy accounts of the hero’s journey like these are misleading. In fact, Franklin’s networks and connections were a defining aspect of his life, as you’ll see in the next chapter, and those connections played a huge role in his success. Indeed, if you study the life of a notable person, you will find that the main character operates within a network of allies. As tempting as it is to believe that we are the only heroes in our own stories, we are entangled in cities, businesses, organizations, families, society at large – collections of people who shape us, help us and yes, sometimes even hurt us. It is impossible to dissociate an individual from the environment of which he is a part. No success story should ever be removed from its larger social context.
The self-taught person may be a myth, but the old adage “There is no I in crew” is wrong, too. There is a I in crew. A team is made up of individuals with different strengths and abilities. Simone Biles needed her teammates to become America’s top gymnastics gold medalist (with points awarded by team). Yet no one would dispute that she was more crucial to Team USA’s Olympic success than anyone in recent memory. Conversely, one bad apple in an otherwise high-performing group can ruin the whole group. Research shows that a team in the business world will tend to perform at the level of the worst team member. Your individual talent and hard work may not be enough to achieve success, but they are absolutely necessary.
“I” versus “We” is a false choice. Both the individual and the team matters. Your professional success depends on both your personal abilities and the ability of your network to amplify them. These are inseparable. Think of it as I/We. The power of an individual is increased exponentially with the help of a team (a network). But just as zero hundredth power is always zero, there is no team without an individual. This book is titled The startup of you, but really, the “you” is both Singular and plural.