Collaboration is the ability to work jointly to achieve a common goal, and I consider it to be one of evolution’s penultimate achievements, if not the penultimate achievement. For example, place five chimpanzees in a room with five identical puzzles, and you will always have five chimps trying to solve five puzzles. Put five humans in a room, and you potentially have five people trying to solve one puzzle. Hence why we are arguably the most adaptable species on this planet. And I would argue that all of the major evolutionary advancements of our species with regards to intellectual capacity in the last two million years have been to support this: from our ability to create and process language, to the relatively recent capacity to connect on an emotive level.
What about ants, you might say?
Ants, bees, and other colonizing insects do exemplify the collaborative spirit, and there is research that suggests that, taken collectively, the hive does, indeed, represent a relatively high order of intelligence. However, this is intelligence writ small. When projected out to encapsulate the human intellect, and the collective ability of humans to solve problems, then the human “hive” capability is orders of magnitude more complex and powerful.
Which brings me to the topic of individualism and, specifically, the brand of extreme individualism worshiped in the U. S.
The U. S. mythology is based in no small part on the concept that individual achievement is more important than that of the team; that one highly capable individual is of higher value than a group of average performers. Thus the fascination with such stories as Atlas Shrugged, and the adulation of people such as Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg. However, while these people may inspire others, they could not have achieved their success in a vacuum – their achievements are as much a product of human collaboration as individual ability. After all, Steve Jobs may have conceptualized the iPad, but it was a team of engineers, developers, marketers, and others that brought it to life.
Now, you can make the case that the iPad would never have come about without Steve’s ability to focus his team towards developing it, and you would be correct. The collective mind does need to be focused. But it does not take a rock star, rugged individualist to do this. All it takes is someone with the skill of managing group dynamics, practiced daily by hundreds of thousands of project managers, team leads, department heads, and the like.
So, we should stop looking to the super-achievers for the answers. We would be better served by focusing on improving our capability for collaboration. Indeed, the problems currently facing us are much too large and complex for any single person to grok. The only way we are going to make it is by working on these problems together.