Big Potential: Be a superstar within a constellation of stars

Success in life relies on other people. Shawn Achor talks about this in his new book Big Potential. In this exclusive extract, he explores shining as part of a successful team…

I know you want to be a superstar. If you have kids, you want them to be superstars. I have seen countless parents send their kids to expensive private schools, hoping that the competitive atmosphere would turn them into superstar academics whom no school could turn down. Yet these hyper-competitive environments operate according to the misguided notion that in order to be “winners” there must be “losers” as well. This is simply not the case, and it completely misses the point of Big Potential. As famed basketball coach John Wooden once wrote, “The main ingredient of stardom is the rest of the team.”

So let’s get really real about winning. One of the most successful coaches in basketball, and perhaps in any sport, is Geno Auriemma, head coach of the UConn women’s basketball team. As of the time of writing, Geno’s team had not lost a game in two years, and his team had won the national championship four of the last five years. How does he do it? He cultivates a culture whereby players are judged by their contributions to the team rather than by their individual successes. Players who become stars by helping the whole team play better will get in the game, while those who try to be “superstars” by upstaging their teammates will sit on the bench. As Geno puts it: “I’d rather lose than watch kids play the way some kids play … They’re always thinking about themselves. Me, me, me, me. I didn’t score, so why should I be happy? I’m not getting enough minutes, why should I be happy? … So when I watch game film, I’m checking what’s going on on the bench. If somebody is asleep over there, if somebody doesn’t care, if somebody’s not engaged in the game, they will never get in the game. Ever.”

You could put Geno on any team at any company and he would keep on winning, because his entire philosophy is to construct a team of stars rather than pamper a superstar. Similarly, Nick Saban, the venerated head coach of the University of Alabama’s perennially championship-winning football team, doesn’t buy into the tradition of handing out game balls to MVPs, because he believes that singling out players for individual achievements goes against his winning objective; for him, success is all about the team’s win, not one superstar’s stats. Unlike so many coaches, managers, and educators, both Geno and Nick know that a “me, me, me” attitude is toxic to a team – and the individual players on it.

In basketball, for example, you would think that shooting percentage would best predict the outcome of a game, right? But in fact a large BYU study found that the ratio of assists to turn- overs is much more predictive of success. That’s because lots of turnovers means players are hogging the ball so that they can score, whereas lots of assists means the players aren’t trying to make individual shots; they are trying to get the collective win.

In business, too, those who care only about their individual success won’t get very far. Think of the hyper-competitive entrepreneur who stepped all over his cofounders, took advantage of his employees, and misled his investors – only to eventually run his company to the ground. Or think of the child actor who made her first million at age fourteen but is in rehab by sixteen, with the best days of her career behind her. Or the cocky athlete who wins his team the trophy one year, then is benched in year two for not playing well with others. All too often, we get so focused on showing off our individual strengths that we underestimate the greater strength that comes from the people we surround ourselves with.

We need to stop asking “How many points did you score?” and start asking “How did you help your team win?”

In a fascinating study, Harvard researchers looked at a sample of 1,052 investment analysts who were competing at the top of their game. Things were going great for them. They had found a way to succeed in a tough and competitive job. They felt like superstars. Then the researchers looked at what happened when those analysts were moved to a new team at a new bank, or left for higher pay elsewhere. If success is all about the individual –  individual grit, hard work, intelligence, and so forth – then those star analysts should have been able to perform equally well in their new environments and continue achieving unabated success. But that is not what happened. A whopping 46 percent of these stars collapsed. They simply were unable to replicate their successes at the new bank. And not just in the short term; the researchers found that FIVE years later, the analysts still could not perform at the level they once had. They stopped being superstars the minute they left behind the constellation of people who had allowed them to shine.

Even if you bring a ton of stars together, you have not necessarily created a winning team. One of the best examples is highlighted by Mark de Rond in an article for Forbes, who describes how the soccer team Real Madrid spent 400 million euros (think about that for a moment) for the most incredible star cluster: Ronaldo, Beckham, Zindane, and the like. And then, from 2004 to 2006, one of the most expensive teams in soccer history had its worst seasons in team history. Meanwhile, between 2000 and 2006, the Oakland A’s baseball team spent the least money of all the MLB teams in the draft, not splurging on superstar players, and yet won more games than almost any other team during that period. They might not have had the most star players, but they did have the best star system.

Companies (and schools) that systematically reward for individual achievement are actually undercutting their success rates, says Peter Kuhn, an economics professor at UC Santa Barbara. He and his team found that compensation programs based on individual performance created a “culture of back-stabbing and colleagues hoarding information from one another.” Men, he found, were especially likely to work individually toward their goals because they assumed that they were better than their peers. But when Kuhn teamed up with Marie Claire Villeval, an economics professor from the National Center for Scientific Research, they found that if you offered employees a 10 percent increase in pay to join a team instead of working individually, more men joined. The male employees who were now incentivised to cooperate began to share more information and take time to train their colleagues, which helped improve the success of their teams. We need to move away from just rewarding individual work and incentivise making others better.

To do this we need to break the vicious cycle of a me, me, me mindset that we see infecting our society. We need to stop asking “How many points did you score?” and start asking “How did you help your team win?” We need to change our reward structures at work, home, and school. As Steve Kerr, a former chief learning officer at Goldman Sachs, wrote, “Leaders are hoping for A (collaboration) while rewarding B (individual achievement). They must instead learn how to spot and reward people who do both.”

Read: How to ask for help

Pursuing the collective win not only helps us perform better in the short term, it allows us to maintain resilience over time as well. The more we are interconnected, the more a single set- back or negative event will be cushioned by other people. Similarly, the more people we have in our ecosystem to share stress, challenges, or burdens with, the lighter those burdens will be for each individual. Occasionally, superstar players will carry the team on their shoulders for the last two minutes before the clock runs out. But the only reason they have the strength to do so is that they shared in the energy expenditure throughout the game. In work, life, sports, or anywhere else, the way to win is to create a system in which members can assist each other, carry each other on their shoulders, and make each other better.

The conclusion of a decade of my work is clear. You can be a superstar; you just can’t be one alone. What you need is a star system: a constellation of positive, authentic influencers who support each other, reinforce each other, and make each other better.

The people around us matter – a lot. And while we can’t choose our family and we don’t get to pick all the people we work with, we CAN strategically choose to SURROUND ourselves with people who will give us a super bounce rather than knock us down. In this chapter you’ll learn how to consciously craft your connections to build a constellation of stars in which you can shine your brightest. It requires only three key steps:

STRATEGY # 1: Tap into the power of positive peer pressure.

STRATEGY #2: Create balance through variety.

STRATEGY #3: Create reciprocal bonds.

In his brilliant book The Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson jokes that you are able to read his book only because all of your ancestors successfully procreated. While this is technically true, I think there’s a corollary: You are reading this book because someone helped you learn to read.

Moreover, you are reading this book because someone inspired you to continue learning. Because someone showed you what it meant to be successful and you wanted to emulate it. Because someone taught you that you could reach your highest potential and then helped you acquire the tools you would need to get there.

In today’s hyper-connected world, we need people like this more than ever. Which is why the first step in creating a star system is to seek out positive people who will inspire and teach us how to be better.

Get your copy of the book here.

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