Collaboration > Competition: Why I Choose To Opt In

Group projects were the bane of my existence growing up. They were the source of anxiety and an early cause of my deep mistrust towards blonde girls and boys named Matthew or Michael. I struggled with two things as our group would form around a small table or shove our desks together to “brainstorm” (in high school “brainstorm” was code from our teacher that she didn’t care what we did so long as we were relatively quiet and there was no obvious sign of bleeding…)

Number one: I was a perfectionist. Anything other than the best, the project chosen to be “an extraordinary example” for all future students, the one every kid would look at and say, “DAY-UMMMM (or whatever the equivalent was in the 90’s before Daniel’s shoes made us all rethink how we compliment each other) - anything other than that would send me into a self-deprecating death spiral that I could only recover from by talking to my teacher at length during recess, eyes filled with tears, explaining that I would fix everything if she would PLEASE give me an A+ and remove all of those remarks and critiques.

Number two: I was a people pleaser. Seeing my group mates stress about their assignment, complain about the work, or, worst of all, clearly not understand what it was exactly we were to be doing to get the above-mentioned A+, would force me to smile and quickly say, “Guys, don’t worry. I’ll do it.” At which point they would say I was awesome, throw their feet up on the desk, recline their heavy little heads into their clasped hands, and talk about boobs (who was getting them, who had them, whose were biggest, who had felt them … seriously, elementary school through high school, I did some of my best work while listening about nipples and the mounding flesh under them.)

The rare occasion that I would allow someone else to do any of the group work or the teacher would demand that the work be divided up evenly (bull shit), I would sit nervously at home the night before the project was due, momentarily fighting the urge to do the entire project at home myself, only to give in, staying up to the voice of Jay Leno and Star Trek reruns forging the pieces assigned to my classmates, trying different styles of handwriting, being as sloppy as the perfectionist in me would allow when cutting construction paper silhouettes so, you know, the pictures of Hitler would really pop. I would hide all of this in strategic places around the school yard, being able to, at a moment’s notice when Matt C. or Matt F. or Matt G. declared that they “like totally spaced it”, excuse myself from my desk, run to the secret location picking up my forged diorama or screenplay for the Holocaust telenovela I wrote for extra credit, and sneak it into the desks of my irresponsible group members. TA-DA! I will take my A+, please and thank you.

It was as exhausting as it sounds. Stupid, some of you might say, but I would go back and do it all over just so I could be assured that my brilliant remake of Shakespeare’s Midsummer’s Night Dream is still held up in front of a class of dim-witted students by a teacher who, decades later, sighs at the memory of her most brilliant and talented student.

College was like a breath of fresh air. Set free from group projects, I would frolic through assignments, giddy almost. Thankful to work for me and only me, I quickly became bitter about all those peers of mine who I allowed to coast on my top-of-the-class coattails. When given the chance in college to work alone or in a group, I opted for masturbation over orgy. I could get things done better myself, the way I wanted it done, without having to compromise or carry anyone along.

Everyone was competition. I was out to win.

I got straight A’s through college, but, as you can imagine, I wasn’t necessarily viewed as the “fun” girl. Thankfully, I had a boyfriend, who would soon become my husband, so I didn’t care about what anyone thought.

The perfectionism stayed. The people-pleasing morphed from wanting to please others to only wanting to please myself.

I was intense but successful.

Two years after graduating Summa Cum Laude I pushed out a baby and quit my job. I suddenly didn’t care about competing with anyone, I was busy keeping two humans alive, myself and my son. As anyone who has had a baby knows, it takes a long time to get back to “normal” after bringing a baby home. I say “normal” because the old definition of that no longer applies.

For me, “normal” meant taking regular showers, getting dressed, and finding a project to work on other than rearranging furniture in my house on a bi-weekly basis. I poured myself into my business, an online company my husband and I had started together, tackling it, as I had gotten used to doing everything else in the past, alone.

I did everything - web design, marketing, writing, publishing, editing, graphic design, customer service, team management, CEO, CFO. In a matter of months I had published over 80 books and was the #1 author on Amazon in Health and Fitness. Funny, because I wasn’t healthy at the time. I was exhausted and angry and cried quietly a lot on the floor of my apartment at two in the morning so I wouldn’t wake baby. For the very first time in my life I couldn’t do it all on my own.

It took some time, but I began to recover from a lifetime of individual competition. I slowed down and hired some much needed help. I’ll admit, it’s hard to let go of the reins. I found myself relapsing to my school days, preparing the work I had hired someone else to do just in case they didn’t deliver or in case they did and I didn’t approve.

But then I had a second baby.

As expected, life got twice as busy and I began caring less about perfection and more about completion. I started to discover that life is so much more than trying to stand above the crowd. Really, it’s about standing in the crowd and enjoying the company.

Time is the most valuable thing we have as humans and, looking back, it’s crazy how much time I wasted caring about little things I don’t even remember today. When I get to choose between doing something perfectly on my own, exhausting my personal time resource, or working with a team so that we all get things done and still have time to, you know, actually enjoy being alive, well, it’s suddenly very clear when I put it like that.

Unexpectedly, choosing collaboration over competition hasn’t just changed my business life (which, by the way, I enjoy my work so much more and I’m much more successful than I was four years ago), but it’s changed every aspect of my life. I say yes to people wanting to help me carry my groceries to the car. I say yes to teaming up with other people because we really do get more done (and, when Sangria is involved, it’s way more fun and socially acceptable!) My yoga practice has gone from being reclusive and private and competitive to being relaxed and open and collaborative. I no longer go into things with the “I’m better” mindset. Instead I think, “What can I learn from this.”

Life, it turns out, is a whole hell of a lot more fun when I choose to opt in. Letting go of perfection and competition and replacing it with good, old-fashioned collaborative team work brings out the best in everyone involved, not just me. And God knows the world could use a little more fun. (But, no, I’m still not ready for that orgy…)

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