On Teamwork, Diversity, and Making Everyone Around You Better
Ah, the Avengers: the world’s favorite super hero team. If ticket sales are any indication, we love them more than the X-Men. And I suspect we’ll like them more than the Justice League. It’s been a great ride for this disparate group of heroes, and their recent blockbuster is no different.
We If you’re one of the few people who aren’t really following along, Age of Ultron is the direct sequel to 2012’s The Avengers, and the 11th overall film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe–a cohesive series of movies, tv shows, and digital shorts that tell individual parts of a larger story drawn from the pages of Marvel Comics.
“The Avengers” are a group of super heroes who, despite their differences, work together towards common purpose…usually saving the world or something like that.
Anyway, I don’t know why I’m bothering to explain the premise of the Avengers, because if by this point in time you haven’t been at least peripherally exposed to ELEVEN of the biggest blockbuster movies of all time, and you don’t know about super hero team ups, you’ve beyond my help.
If you’re not into this, I don’t know how to talk to you. We’re not friends. For the rest of you, let’s get down to brass tacks and discuss some #realness.
So. The Avengers. What an awesome group of badasses, right?
Right. But in addition to just loving them for their entertainment value and the way they inspire us to get jacked like a super hero, I believe they can teach us a few things.
In fact, I think that looking at a movie about super hero teams can teach us a lot; not just how to save the world while looking awesome in spandex (harder than it looks), and not just when it’s appropriate to break out some snappy one-liners for high-level quippery (always), but some actual life lessons.
The most important of these are about teams. Not just teamwork—but the value of teams themselves.
Being part of a team—and knowing—how to be both part of a team, and successful on a team, is a fundamental skill that I think everyone needs to learn.
The first thing you can learn from the Avengers is math: ONE is better than one. Meaning that one team is better than one person. This is very different than saying “five is better than one.”
Sure, a group of 5 individuals can probably accomplish more than just one person alone…but it is only once that group of 5 becomes ONE that you see the magic happen. When you’re part of a team–a truly cohesive unit that functions with a single purpose–you can accomplish wonders. A single team can do more in a few days than one person can do in a month, or a bunch of individuals can do in a week.
The hard part is making those 5 into ONE. Being able to do this requires that all members put their respective egos aside, and trust one another.
For the Avengers, this is sometimes hard. Captain America and Iron Man, for example, have a pretty different worldview, and compromise doesn’t come easy.
But despite their disagreements, they respect and trust one another, because they can see the value each brings to the table. When things get crazy and they really need to work together, they each fall into their roles seamlessly.
If you’re going to be part of a truly successful team, you have to learn to let go of a lot of your general attitudes and preconceived notions. You just need to trust in the people around you, and earn their trust as well.
While it’s certainly difficult, actively setting aside ego is going to make you a better teammate, better employees, better boss…as well as a better parent, spouse, or friend.
The abandonment of ego is what allows you to become part of a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
This hasn’t always been easy for me, and it’s still a challenge.
In fact, the only thing that’s really helped me is to be constantly reminded that I don’t know everything, and I can’t do it all on my own. Trying and failing is part of it, but the larger piece of success has simply to become part of a number of teams, and focus on playing ONE specific role, rather than trying to do everything myself.
Which brings us to lesson number two…
If you truly want to become successful, especially as part of a team, learning how to play a single role is important.
This is something I learned many years ago, back when I was 12 and playing Dungeons & Dragons in my friend’s basement. Much like the Avengers, D&D functions on the basic premise that in order to be successful, you and your group (known as an adventuring party) need to work together.
But it doesn’t stop there. It’s not enough to know how to work together; you need to work together with people who are fundamentally different than you are. In D&D, a balanced party will have characters that play different roles and bring different skills to the table. It’s important to have warriors, but you also need people who can cast spells, or hide in the shadows, or whatever else you need. Basically, a good party can deal with everything from magic to picking locks to a swarm of ocs.
This is very much like the Avengers. Every member of the team serves a different purpose. At a macro level, Iron Man is the brains; Cap is the moral center; Hulk is the muscle; Thor has the best hair (and can hammer things, I guess); Black Widow brings all sorts of espionage to the table. And they all have a role…but NO ONE Avenger is more important than the others.
This is something we can all take to heart. And, as I touched on above, seeking these people out is one of the easiest ways to learn how to set ego aside.
Here’s an example from my own experience.
A few years back, I was contracted to handle the nutrition for UFC fighter Uriah Hall, in preparation for a fight.
Most of the time, I do everything for my clients; with Uriah, I was hired ONLY for nutrition. And that was hard, at first.
My job was only that one thing—to calculate his nutritional needs and tell him how to fill them. My boy Scot Prohaska, on the other hand, took care of the training aspect—that was his role. He designs the strength and conditioning programs. And of course Uriah has a coach for stand up, one for grappling, and so on.
Working with higher levels of athletes is one of the only situations in which a trainer/coach will be part of such a large team. Anyone who says this isn’t a challenge is either a better man than I can imagine, or just lying.
At the start, it was very weird to sublimate the urge to make adjustments to a piece of the puzzle that wasn’t my responsibility. It’s limiting in some ways, and liberating in others. But most of all, it makes you think, and helps you learn.
I just kept telling myself, “be the nutrition guy; handle the nutrition. Don’t worry about the conditioning. Don’t think about trying to make changes to the training program.”
My job was to look those other things over and estimating the demands training and conditioning and fight practice place upon the athlete, then to address support and recovery through nutrition. My job was to incorporate every piece of information into my assessments, and recommendations, but it was NOT to make changes. At first, it was a real challenge.
Over time, it became more and more natural, and I learned a lot from the people around me—which was really the best part of the entire experience, and part of the reason I signed up, anyway.
If you’re not bound by ego, watching people do things differently is more of an honor than a burden; you just have to be open minded and trust the members of your team, even if they do things that you haven’t done. Having an understanding of the other facets helps tremendously, but at the end of the day being part of a team means just doing your job—not all the jobs.
Not only is it likely that you can’t do that job as well as someone else, but trying to do so would drive you crazy, and keep you from fulfilling your purpose. Perhaps most importantly, it would be detrimental to the team as a whole.
The lesson here is this: in life, you can’t be good at everything—but you can find people who are good at what you’re not. If you surround yourself with people who help shore up your weaknesses, you’re going to be more successful overall.
Without sounding too wishy-washy about it, I think we can all agree that learn to appreciate others for the ways they’re different from us is probably the key to world peace. Or, at least, from stopping an army of AI-driven robots from destroying us all.
Now, onto lesson number three.
If you follow any writing concerned with self-edification, you’ve almost definitely heard the expression “you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” This is generally used as a warning against hanging out with people who’ll drag you down.
Personally, I have always hated that expression. Why? Because it completely minimizes personal responsibility for your development, as well as your own contribution to that of others.
Here’s the thing: yes, you are, in many ways, a product of your environment, and the people you hang out with are bound to have a huge influence on everything from your ambition to the way you speak and present yourself.
The problem with the expression is that it completely ignores the other side of the coin: if you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with, then you’re also 1/5 of the equation for each of those people, and anyone else in your immediate orbit.
That’s why I prefer the maxim “iron sharpens iron.” It’s older by far (like, Bible old), and means that spending time with other people makes you stronger, and better…but only if they’re on your level to begin with.
Tin does not sharpen iron. Nor does wood, or gold, or brass. But the thing is, iron can be used to shape and sharpen those things. Changes can still be made, things can still be built, but the relationship is one-sided. The iron is doing all the work, and the softer substance is undergoing all of the change.
It is only when you have two pieces of iron—two people of similar quality—that they can REALLY engage in a mutually beneficial relationship.
The Avengers are a group for whom this is painfully true. While they’re all impressive individuals on their own, it’s only by spending time and working together that they improve—not only as a team, but also as individuals. Of course, the process of iron sharpening iron can have some…hiccups…
But, it’s always a worthwhile process, because it helps everyone. For example, spending time with Steve Rogers has dulled Tony’s arrogance; Black Widow has helped Captain America become more world aware; Clint Barton’s continued friendship repeatedly shows Natasha Romanoff there’s more to her than the assassin she was trained to be.
And, on the more extreme side, hanging out with Tony has helped the reclusive Bruce Banner come out of his shell.
Each of the Avengers helps the others get better; not only because they “see” value in one another, but because they actually have things to offer each other. While it’s tempting to think of the Avengers as being a slightly imbalanced team (the tragically human Hawkeye and Black Widow being the weak links compared to super soldiers, demi-gods, and ragemonsters), but the fact is, every single member of the team earned a spot and has something to bring to the table.
My point is, while it’s certainly true you should seek always to spend time with people who make you better and prune your social circle, you have a responsibility to the people you care about to be better, and always be getting better.
If we accept that you’re 1/5 of the personal development equation for each of these people, then in order to make them better YOU have to make sure that your iron is as hard as theirs, and vice versa.
A lot of us have the tendency to hang out with people who are a bit above us, because it makes us feel “cool”, or a bit below us, because it makes us feel “big.” But unless we’re constantly striving to become better—unless we take personal responsibility for our own development—we’re not going to get the most out of those relationships. And we certainly aren’t going to bring our best to them.
If there’s one thing you take away from this piece, let it be this: water finds its own level, and no matter how many individual drops there are, it all rises (or falls) together.
Okay. Maybe to you, The Avengers is just a super hero movie in a long line of similar films. And on some levels, it is.
But, like anything else, there are lessons to be learned from all great adventure stories. At the very least, they can tweak your memory and get you thinking differently about things you already knew, or perhaps add a new layer to your understanding.
The Avengers, like any team, is made up of a group of deeply flawed individuals. But it shows us that under the right set of circumstances, and with the right group of people around us, just about anyone can be better, and make those around them better.
Or, if not…at least there’s a ton of sweet jokes. Love that Joss Whedon wit.