Shared Struggle is the Essential Ingredient for Standout Teams

Shared Struggle is the Essential Ingredient for Standout Teams
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What lessons should everyone learn about teamwork and cooperation? originally appeared on Quora - the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

Answer by Praveen Tipirneni, MD from McGill University, on Quora:

You’ve probably seen your fair share of inspirational quotes about adversity.

The hottest fires forge the strongest steel.

Diamonds are created under great pressure.

Cheesy, I know. But there is truth to the idea that overcoming struggle and adversity can lead to great things. And a group of people that struggle together forms a bond that can lead to exceptional teamwork.

Forming A Team

I see this process play out in the robotics league that I coach. The kids are anywhere from 5 to 11, and the teams can include up to 12 kids. If you’ve ever worked with a group of children that age, you know that it isn’t a simple matter to transform those kids into a real, cohesive team.

In fact, that almost never happens until our first scrimmage. I can practice with them for hours, trying to force them to work as a group, but they’ll still end up playing by themselves for most of the session.

They’re missing a key ingredient. They’re missing the struggle. What I mean is, they’re missing that adversity that forces them to work together in order to accomplish something. That’s why the scrimmages are so important.

How Struggle Shapes A Group

The day-long scrimmage puts the children in conditions that aren’t optimal. There are multiple competitions and chances for them to rework their robots and programming. But they may not have everything they need. The competition tables aren’t perfect. They’re forced to work things out on the floor. They may even be hungry because of the pizza delivery schedule.

It’s an eight-hour day, and for kids that’s an extraordinarily long time. But they all struggle through it together. And after that, they’re bonded as a team and they’re suddenly very productive for the rest of the season. They know how to cooperate, strategize, and take ownership of their wins and losses.

That adversity is really what bonds teams together. It’s something that you can’t fake. You can’t simply inject struggle into a situation to help people bond. It does have to be organic in a sense. These are real events that people have to push through together. And in the end, they’re also the events that we look back on as some of our most formative.

The Events We Remember

I tend to think about these events through the lens of a book I read, Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein. One of his points in the book is that there are certain things you can do if you want to have the perception of a long life. To be able to look back at life and see it as long and meaningful, you need to make memories that mark each of your years. The more routine things get, the more your brain tends to blend them together. But if you can create a particular memory each year, or even every few years, your brain can use that to distinguish the years from each other. It creates the sense of a long and hopefully satisfying life.

I’ve taken that to heart with the annual trips that I take with my friends and family. We always do something that’s a little different, even extreme. Whether it’s hiking an active volcano in Guatemala, or driving a rally across 14 countries in Asia and Europe, I’m always trying to do something that pushes the boundaries, that really gets me out of my comfort zone.

People wonder why we don’t just visit a museum or take a walk around town when we go to a new place. Part of the reason is that our extreme adventure or activity helps me clearly demarcate between the years. I can remember, “Oh yeah, that was the year I was stuck in Japan for three days with no cash and an Amex card nobody accepted.”

Children As Teachers

Those experiences stand out to me because there was a struggle involved. When you look back at life, those are the things that you’ll cherish the most. The memories that will stand out are times when there was difficulty or adversity—and you overcame it.

That’s what those kids are learning as they work through those long, difficult days. At their age, that eight-hour day is akin to one spent hiking a volcano. It’s tough. It’s exhausting. They have to rely on each other.

And the amazing part is that they do end up relying on each other. Even that one day-long scrimmage is enough to bring them together as a group, whereas before that, it’s nearly impossible for me to make that happen. As adults, sometimes we’re too close to our own experiences to know exactly how they shape us. But watching those kids is a real-time lesson on teamwork and how it’s really built.

That’s the paradox of struggle. We resist it though it’s likely that it enabled our most effective teamwork and our most memorable moments.

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