(“My Dear Students,” a biweekly column that’s a conversation with young minds about current events, books, popular culture, pretty much anything worth talking about over a cup of coffee.)
My dear students,
Your student life leads to a paradox. You are conditioned to succeed individually. Achieve your goals by focusing on yourself. You decide what your goals are; you decide how you will go about achieving your goals; and you decide how much you will try. When you think about it, this is not a very complicated thing. Schools and universities already have a set of identified goals for you: ace exams, win debates, write award-winning essays, etc. You decide which of these goals works for you and then develop a personal plan based on your interests and motivations. . So good so far, except that in the real world you almost never pursue individual goals.
In real life, you face a different problem that requires a different skill set: how to succeed collectively. By collective success, I mean that your life flourishes if the team you’re on flourishes. Growing up means being part of a team with responsibilities: a mother, an office mate, a resident welfare association member, a cricket team; the possibilities are endless.
When you start working, you will have a different set of decisions to make. You will have to figure out what you can do for your team, not for yourself. This is not because the world rewards altruism, but because the world is wired so that the precondition for your success is the success of the team you are a part of.
Members of an orchestra are successful when the orchestra performs well in unison. The director and performers work with each other to produce a joint production that, if done well, enhances the success of everyone working on the production. The contribution you need to make to the team will not always be clear and it will be your job to map out your vision for your team. To realize what your team needs, you’ll need some understanding of your team members and some appreciation of the larger organization and ecosystem in which your team operates.
But that’s only part of the problem you’ll face. There is an even bigger problem, and this will come up more often as you take on leadership roles. You will have to convince your team that what you can do for the team is what they really need. I assume you will be genuinely convinced that what you can bring to your team is required by the team, but very often your team will also need convincing. If they are not convinced, they will not work with you to make your vision work. This is an interpersonal communication problem. Nobody teaches you this when you’re a student.
But even this is not the end of the matter, and we are coming to the most difficult part of your working life. You may have understood your team’s role and convinced yourself that your contribution adds value to the team. However, you also have to show your team that what you did for the team was because you believed in the success of the team and not for yourself. Assuming they think you’re in it for yourself, they won’t have an emotional connection with you. You’re just another cog in the machine for them, and they have nothing to lose by discarding you when times get tough. On the other hand, if they think you are a team player, they will value your role in the team. Collegiality is earned, not demanded. I’ve put some emphasis on demonstration here because, again, this is a communication issue, but of a different kind.
The previous communication problem was analytical: better articulate your contribution to the team. This communication problem is more emotional. You’re not shouting your value as a team player, but showing your contribution in a number of quiet and subtle ways. Bringing coffee to your team members or handling the phones when one of them is busy are important indicators of what you are willing to do for the team, even if there are no immediate individual benefits.
Are there any real-world lessons for your student life? Try if you can get into circumstances that will help you become a good team player. Join the organizing committees; it could be any committee related to university life: sports, debate, clubs, parties, competitions. The problem with student committees is that vagrants don’t face any inconvenience for slacking off, unlike in real life.
But at least you can cultivate your team player skills on these committees, even if others don’t take their roles seriously.
Your student life leads you to believe that individual brilliance and talent will take you far. Rather, your value as a member of your various communities will be a measure of your success.