When it comes to your current economic situation, perhaps you think you’ve been playing by the rules and yet find that you are not prospering.
Maybe you’re one of the 20 million unemployed Americans. You might be hunting for a job, doing all the things they say you’re supposed to do: résumés, cover letters, networking, re-training, and the like. Maybe you’ve even gotten some interviews, in which you assure prospective employers that yes, you are a “team player” (while secretly gritting your teeth).
Or maybe you are still employed, working like a dog for a company whose corporate culture has all the charisma and compassion of a stapler.
And you’re wondering where the reward is.
You might ask yourself: how do you feel when you’re doing these things? When you’re being interviewed, do you secretly cringe when they ask you to recount a time when you were part of an effective team? Do you feel like you’re selling yourself out just a little when you assure the interviewer that you “enjoy working with others?” Do you feel like you’re playing the “job” game with frustrated desperation? Or do you feel like you’re wasting your life with undemanding yet time-consuming tasks at your present job?
Here’s a radical thought: if you’re feeling that way, maybe that’s exactly the way you should be feeling.
Maybe you’re actually not in a team phase in your life.
Maybe it’s time for you to consider doing something else. Maybe you are, in fact, not a team player right now.
Maybe it’s time to go for it on your own.
The Corporate Focus on Bogus Teamwork
The catechism of teamwork — flexible teams, variable role-definition, organic organization, and the like — has become a hallowed precept in American business. No one seems to be questioning how appropriate the concept of “team” is in a corporate setting where production and sale of products consists of a ceaseless round of development, marketing, service/maintenance, product obsolescence (whether planned or forced), followed by new development. No one seems to notice that, in this ongoing process, individual responsibility and group accountability neither resolve nor conclude.
There is rarely a satisfactory payoff for many of those involved in the process, no matter how many product-launch parties management throws or T-shirts they provide to simulate esprit de corps.
Industrial enterprises tend to think of employees as square pegs that must be fit into appropriate square project holes.
Psychologically, many men (and women) are not set up to function like that. They want to be more well-rounded.
If these concepts of teamwork make you feel uneasy, if you get a sense of the futility of it all, then you are not meant to be a member of such a “team.” You have exhausted that approach to economic involvement. And it is time you acknowledged that and headed in a new direction that feels better, that provides you with a sense of rightness.
An entire book could be written about the notion of teams and teamwork, their history, application, and evolution. I can’t begin to survey all that in this post. But a few summarizing ideas can be offered…
Man is one of the few mammals that works cooperatively to accomplish a particular end. This behavior seems most common in species that form packs, family groups, schools, or societies. For example, coyotes will work as a team to catch an antelope (taking turns to chase the swifter antelope until it is exhausted). Chimps will form coalitions to engage in aggressive behavior toward other individuals or groups of chimps. Dolphins and orcas will cooperate to herd, confine, and capture prey.
This type of behavior is not necessarily common. Bears are not team players. Neither are leopards, armadillos, ferrets, Galapagos tortoises, nor eagles.
In the instances where teamwork is used in the natural world, the objective is usually an easily-identified and quickly-accomplished reward or benefit. A goal is chosen, the team forms, action occurs, and the goal is accomplished, which generally results in a material payoff shared by the contributors.
Humans formerly applied teamwork to hunting large animals. When populations stabilized and settled into given areas, humans learned to cooperate to construct shelters or iconic structures (e.g., Stonehenge). Eventually, teamwork was applied to aggression and warfare.
As mankind established ever more complex societies and economies, division of labor became a necessity. Specialization arose. As warfare became increasingly dependent on the coordination of groups of soldiers, team sports arose in parallel. “Sports” as the Greeks knew them consisted almost entirely of individual events. It wasn’t until the 16th century or so that team sports such as cricket began to be invented in Great Britain. The concept of “teamwork” was born. But again, whether in play or in war, a team of people worked together to accomplish a definite goal — score more runs, kick a ball through a goal, wipe out the enemy’s army.
At first, economic specialization allowed freedom of individual expression. That is, instead of every man being a hunter and gatherer, men could be blacksmiths, candle-makers, grave-diggers, and lawyers. They pursued a trade or craft in their own, unique way. Professions arose.
When mass-production was developed, specialization of activity increased to the point that an individual’s contribution to an enterprise could consist of an action that, considered by itself, would be worthless, but in the context of an assembly-line, would contribute to the eventual production of a widget. (Remember how, in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Charlie’s father’s job was to screw the caps on toothpaste tubes?) To guarantee rapid, consistent production, regimentation became the norm.
Public schools were established. More team sports — football, basketball, roller derby — were invented.
How Public Schools Create “Employees”
Children are not by nature regimented in their play. Very young children, left to themselves, do not tend to form teams. They enjoy individual activities. It’s interesting that one of the first team-oriented group games that modern kids — me among them — first remember playing is “Army” or “Cowboys and Indians.” We were playing at dominating another group. This sets the stage for eventual military cooperation, which millions of men (and, increasingly, women) are, for some reason, still willing to engage in.
Public schools prepare people for organized, clock-dependent, niche-related activities. Team sports do the same. But team sports at least preserve the satisfaction of being able to apply individual prowess, as well as the shared rewards of the “hunting pack.” The goals and rules of sports are clearly defined — achieve the highest score, stay within boundaries — as are individual roles on a sports team (striker, goalie, left tackle). And most team competitions don’t last much longer than two or three hours. Modern schooling, on the other hand, drags on for years, with a dreary round of daily, ill-conceived drudgery interspersed with a “reprieve” known as summer vacation.
In school, satisfying individual roles and statuses are mostly non-existent, except as defined by “grades.” Odd, oftentimes uncomfortable and occasionally oppressive social dynamics arise on the playground to compensate.
School is getting you ready for a “job.”
Note how similar an environment to that in school is preserved in the corporate, industrialized workplace. So-called teamwork in large companies often consists of activities that result in nebulous, partial, or vague outcomes. Of course, a paycheck at the end of the week or month is supposed to compensate for this ambiguity (why do you suppose a paycheck is referred to as “compensation,” anyway?).
To a certain extent, men enjoy shared toil in a situation where loyalty is valued. But the quality of the rewards for such toil, both psychological and material, have gotten thinner as our western economies have advanced. Company loyalty to employees as a reciprocal benefit of employment is now little more than a bullet-point in HR PowerPoint presentations.
Do you expect the employer to whom you’re loyal to be loyal to you? If you do, you’re living the 1950s.
As an example, here’s my own history: I worked for a computer chip manufacturer as a middle manager for 5 years, successfully completing many projects as a “team member.” In 2001, the company eliminated my position and laid me off to reduce costs.
I next worked for a wind power startup company that was trying to develop utility-scale power projects. I toiled for 3 years, working weekends and nights for less pay than many of my corporate peers. When venture capitalists invested in the business, they hired two young people to do the work I’d been doing, paid them less, moved me into a non-essential position, and eventually eliminated that job.
I next worked for a company that consulted on and audited large government IT projects, such as Medicaid management systems. I was part of a 5-person team that assessed and verified progress on such projects in recurring intervals that lasted 8 weeks. I traveled a lot and worked hard to produce useful reports and recommendations for project “stakeholders.” When I was first hired by that company, they employed 125 people. When they eventually laid me off as a result of spending reductions and delays in government funding, the staff was down to 33.
Ask any of the hundreds of thousands of employees who have been laid off one or more times during the last 15 years about company “loyalty.” It has become a joke.
How does this sound to you? Are there echoes of your own frustrations here? If so, maybe it’s time to consider something different. Maybe it’s time to abandon the corporate sinkhole in which you’ve been attempting to abide. Maybe you should quit trying to be a “team player.”
At Easter: Jesus Was Not a Team Player
Today is Easter Sunday, and in considering this holiday and its story, it’s obvious that Jesus was not a team player. Now, aside from the fact that he is the most controversial, misconstrued, and co-opted human being of all time, I don’t want to get into a debate on the “taking one for the team” aspect of his life. Suffice it to say that the most relevant line about him is: “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
The meaning of this isn’t hard to grasp: believe in a divine “son,” which is a metaphor for the outpouring of spiritual essence, which is that god-begotten aspect of ourselves that underlies our experience in human embodiment, and we will know and understand that that aspect of ourselves lives forever. In doing so, we will realize that the world is based on love.
If you ascribe the role to Jesus of a kind of über-animal sacrificed to appease an entity that invisibly and capriciously controls outcomes in humans’ individual lives, then we don’t have a lot of intellectual common ground upon which to continue a discussion. Jesus was not a spring lamb. You’re just told that to make you feel guilty. People who feel guilty are easier to manipulate.
When you consider what he accomplished, it becomes clear that Jesus was probably a pretty happy, enthusiastic, engaged type of guy. He was interested in how things worked. He was practical. He went his own way. The organizations of his day did not regard him as a team player. He didn’t quietly fill the role that guys of that time were supposed to fill. He didn’t accept the conventional social goals that he was supposed to accept. He originated his own projects.
You are probably getting to the point of wanting to remove the wool from your own eyes. Teams that are assembled to pursue anything besides a short-term, tangible reward are not teams. Individuals who must be “compensated” to pursue devitalized roles in regimented toil are not members of a team. They are lackeys. You have probably begun to suspect this.
You don’t like it. You don’t think being a lackey befits your powers. You are not in a phase of life where you can continue to accept being a fake member of an ersatz team.
Easter is about renewal and transformation. Which is what we are called upon to do from time to time — to change, reinvent ourselves. That’s the message contained in this holiday, this spring-time season. Adaptation is one of the fundamental themes of life, though we often seem surprised when it comes up. Today, consider yourself reminded. Rest assured that it is normal. Now is the time to think about what’s next.
If you find yourself in this rocking boat, it’s not necessarily easy to overcome the bullshit used to condition you to accept a paycheck in return for unfulfilling drudgery. I mean, as far as your economic activity goes, isn’t it easier to go with the flow and just get a “job?”
No? It’s not easier? In fact, the idea sticks in your craw? Then you are not in a phase of life where it’s important to you to please interviewers sitting in corporate offices. That’s why your efforts to do so have been halfhearted, and your results have been showing it.
Look around. You’ll notice that things can work pretty well for men who are not team players.
Politicians are not team players. (Sure, they assemble teams to work for them, but they themselves function independently of the rewards those teams pursue.) Entrepreneurs are not necessarily team players. They often break the rules of invention, investment, production, and cooperation, and if there’s one thing institutionalized teams depend on, it’s rules.
Artists are not team players. (Harking back to Roald Dahl, why do you think he subtly disparages a number of social conventions in his stories? He is an artist.) Successful self-help gurus are not team players. Nor are innovative scientists. Nor are guys who inspire the creation of religions.
The only truly satisfied team players you’ll find are those who are members of actual teams that function according to the basic parameters of teamwork described above: actors, professional athletes, fire fighters, Navy SEALs, astronauts, sous chefs, and so on.
Those who pursue economic activity outside the law or outside conventional social bounds are, of course, anathema to those invested in convincing people to be team players.
Drug dealers are not team players. Hobos are not team players. Professional gamblers are not team players. (It is no coincidence that, in the midst of many more pressing issues, the Justice Department recently decided to pull the plug on a source of enjoyment — and, in some cases, livelihood — for hundreds of thousands of law-abiding American citizens: online poker. Government is overwhelmingly interested in conformity, economic constraint, and a pessimistic view of “reality.” For this reason, government illegalizes most recreational drugs — i.e., drugs that enable people to feel better, or at least temporarily numb, to the way they feel most of the time as a result of being exposed to the forces of conformity that you yourself are beginning to find intolerable. Remember, government did try Prohibition. It turned out to be cheaper and more lucrative tax-wise to allow citizens to use at least one drug — alcohol — that sort of soothes the friction of the daily grind.)
In other words, it’s not you, it’s them. You are correct to feel the way you do. You are right to want something different, to not be a member of a “team” pursuing endless, enthusiasm-draining tasks in a soulless environment predicated on anxiety and committed to mediocrity.
Jesus was not a team player. Maybe it’s time you weren’t one, either. What have you got to lose, except your boredom? And maybe a certain sheep-like security?
Rewards of Transformation
The rewards of transformation are sometimes easily attainable, but more often people struggle to attain them.
Just be aware that it is chiefly fear that keeps you stuck in a situation of so-called teamwork. The prospect of isolation may seem uncomfortable. But if you can begin, even incrementally, to take small steps, to head in a direction that right now you are afraid to go, you will start to feel better.
Sure, you’ll still be afraid from time to time. But you will also begin to feel more alive, more vital. You’ll begin to feel self-respect, even while simultaneously feeling that you’re violating some unspoken rule that everyone around you conforms to unquestioningly, or at most with a grumble. You will begin to feel more satisfaction, even while observing some yearning within yourself for the addictive rewards that have been perpetually offered to you by the organizers of team activity.
That’s okay. Your feeling of unease, of insecurity, is diagnosable. You simply are not in a team-oriented phase of life. Go your own way. Choose your preferred reward. You will experience the security of being true to yourself, the benefits of disagreeing with rules that serve a hierarchy inside which your satisfaction will always be thin.
Jesus was not a team player. Instead, he focused so persistently on finding a good feeling that he made other people feel good, too. That’s something akin to what you want.
First, figure out what the opposite feeling is to the feeling you have when you consider getting a job or going to the job you have now. Then milk that feeling for inspiration. When you know what you don’t want, you know what you do want.
You could do worse than to pursue your own meaningful, fulfilling goals. You could have less fun than it would be to huddle with a few other non-conformists as you embark on the hunt.
Best wishes with this non-team phase of your life!