Strength in Numbers

Love You 3,000 … 

I think it can be universally agreed upon that Iron Man is cool. With a suit that can fire lasers and fly, superhero status by saving the world and a sizable fortune to boot, he’s the epitome of awesome. Yet, I’ve come to notice that subtly underneath all these obvious reasons why Iron Man in our eyes is a model for success is more due to his will to be independent.

If you’ve ever seen an Avengers movie, you’ll notice that Iron Man is sometimes unabashedly uncooperative. He doesn’t want to listen to anyone, doesn’t exactly value their opinion, and wants to do it his way, and in a way, he justifies it by continuously succeeding. Time and again, Iron Man proved his individual prowess, whether it was making his suit by himself, or discovering the secrets to time travel. And it isn’t just Marvel or superheroes that have this all too familiar character archetype. Take Mark Zuckerberg. If you’ve watched “The Social Network” then you’d know that the Facebook CEO started writing code on the window of his dorm room and engineered the site with his own hands. It didn’t matter that he backstabbed his own best friend and kicked him out of the company, or that he was frequently impolite to his business partners; Mark was simply beyond their grasp that it didn’t matter how the outside world viewed him. No matter the collective efforts of the many, they were somehow all overtaken by the singular genius of an individual. And for some reason, we love it. This idea that possessing enough power or intellect or money to reach further heights than the joint achievements of the masses has been idealized in our culture. We crave the idea that one person can do great things without having to be reliant on others, that separating ourselves from everyone else means we transcend into someone regarded as superior. 

However, this line of reasoning isn’t only blatantly infeasible, but harmful to our well-being as a society. More and more we want to do things “our way” rather than in taking the opinions of others. We’ve seemingly forgotten the strength in numbers and have instead passed it over for the independence of the individual. It shouldn’t come as a shock that not all of us can be Tony Stark or Mark Zuckerberg, yet saying that doesn’t mean we should just stop trying to achieve greatness, rather the contrary: we can achieve greater and larger goals when we open ourselves up and work together. Now, while I’m sure we’ve all heard that cliche advice before, I want to ask for you to take a deeper and earnest look at what collaboration and buying into a group really means. There’s power in knowing the limitations of our abilities and reaching for assistance when you know you can’t do it alone. It’s even as Iron Man has to admit, “If we can’t accept limitations then we’re no better than the bad guys.”

Memory Overload

But first, what are some of the roadblocks that stop us from giving those around us a chance? Largely, our perceptions of others can stop us before we even get the chance to work together. When someone asks you to describe one of your friends, what do you say? The odds are you can’t capture the entire essence of who your friend is as a person, so you try to reduce their personality into some definable characteristics. You would never say, “Sally is nice when she’s talking with her peers and socializing, but not as peppy at work, and when she gets annoyed she is not nice… etc.” rather you’d condense it to, “Sally is nice,” because our brain simply can’t manage to store so much detailed information about each one of our intimate relationships. The detriment to this however is that we restrict our view on others of the limited observations we’ve gathered. We like to think of personalities as absolute and self-evident, that some people are naturally always mean or always lazy and forget to remember the different context that prevails each time. Yet, it’s not accurate to assume that character can be plotted out as a set of easily identifiable traits that are broad generalizations. This wrongful labeling has a psychological name called Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE), and can essentially be defined as when we undervalue the situational context of a person’s surroundings and instead attribute it to internal characteristics, like their personality. So maybe that person in your group project who hasn’t been talking is a chatter-box when prompted and just needs you to get them going, yet you would never know these details if you kept on shutting them out. Oddly enough, it’s common that we do the inverse of FAE when analyzing ourselves, believing that our external stimuli are the main proponent for our actions. A common way I chalk it up is when someone is talking about how they’re doing in a class: when someone isn’t doing well they’ll usually blame their teacher, or how busy they are, or tons of other valid reasons that are outside of their control. Yet, when they do well many people will say it was because they were smart or some other internal quality, and somehow exclude reasons like maybe the teacher was great or how they have an abundance of time. As you can see, it’s really difficult to get an accurate read even on ourselves, so imagine how much you don’t know about everyone else. My advice: be ready to be surprised by people, you never know what great qualities might lay underneath, and it’s a much more exciting life!

Is this, Collaboration?

So it’s settled: you’ve laid down your ego, have dropped your preconceived notions of others, and are ready to make concessions, but what classifies as being open and letting others in? A good indicator of this is whether you can receive and utilize criticism in a healthy manner. Now, it should be noted that constructive criticism is a two-way street: it takes both parties being considerate to be progressive. The following isn’t for when someone is berating you, but when they are candidly trying to help and giving honest advice. That being said, openly accepting feedback, not arguing while someone objectively tells you what you did wrong can understandably not feel the best. We know they have the best intentions, and we know that it isn’t a personal attack on our character, yet it’s difficult to adjust our perspective to theirs and completely override what we once knew. This results in the following events we know all too well: arguing, contempt, and sometimes straight out ignoring the evaluation. So what went wrong? We knew all the facts, yet our feelings tell us to act differently. 

We can address this problem by looking back at the Fundamental Attribution Error. As we’ve seen, people will make incorrect judgments about others all the time. A way to therefore reshape what criticism in our minds is by asking ourselves one simple question: Why is it that this person has this impression of me? Because even when you think they’re wrong, you can diagnose what you were doing to give them that ill impression. This approach doesn’t have you sacrifice all your previous values, rather it asks how you can bridge the gap between your vision and how others perceive it. Much of the time the problem isn’t who you are, but what people think you are. I can’t stress how much the world opens up when we let others in, and it’s never too late to try and be a little more accepting today. If there’s any constant throughout life, it’s that there are going to be problems thrown at you, and it will surely be a lot easier if you have some assistance. Taking their advice and allowing yourself to be criticized could be the first step.

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