Check Your Ego at the Door

After having recently returned home from spending the last three weeks in Asia, the majority of the time working on our first shoot in North Korea for our ice hockey documentary, I've been reflective. 

This reflection is not just about the project or my time in Asia, but rather about teamwork and how I can fit into a team. Of course I'm also thinking about my friends and colleagues in North Korea, many of them I've known for close to a decade now, and how simply grateful I am to have them in my life as well; however, this post will be about something quintessential about our group of five's dynamics while working in a high stress, challenging environment on what may just be a groundbreaking film. 

This post I guess will be a pert in a series of posts that have to do with teamwork. 

Continuing along the lines of ridding the need for external validation from my life, I would like to spend some time talking about making teamwork work through "leaving your ego at the door." There is too much interjection of the "self" in work, especially for me, maybe because I have always pursued my own career path after graduating from university. If I don't "believe" in something, well, should I be doing it? If I want to do this, then should I become impervious to the input of others? How can I become a better leader and teacher? How can I learn from others?

Well, the problem with all of those questions from the start is the interjection of "I," of the "self" in each part of that question. Perhaps it's more from a longing on how to fit on or best spend time and effort, but ultimately it's ego driven to a large degree. 

So, drop the ego. Try it. Actually remove all questions whose subject is is first person. Now I am not asking to replace the "I" with a "you" or "him or her," but rather, find the essence of the work you are doing together. Yes, cliche, but it's about "we" and to achieve this "us" mentality, egos must be diminished. And don't just say "we" for the sake of saying it in this illusion of teamwork, but actually mean it, actually open your mind to a vast array of input, trust others to not only handle their roles but thrive, and if they need help, they will ask for it and direct it properly. 

Easier said than done of course. But having just spent a couple of weeks with one of the most capable, egoless, cohesive teams I've ever had the pleasure of working with trying to produce a documentary on ice hockey in North Korea, a country where only a certain preselected egos are allowed to exist, publicly anyway, it is certainly possible. 

Even when we would talk to the North Korean hockey players, we would ask about pride, as in what have they done that makes them proud, or where do they find their personal sources of pride. Pride and ego are not exactly the same thing, since pride can feed ego but it can also feed purpose, but in Korean this question was not only difficult to ask, but also for the players to respond, especially when we restricted their answers to only refer to their own individual accomplishments and feelings. 

The team I was working with had a few great things going for it. First off, each individual abandoned their egos in favour of the group. We turned to each other not on each other when tricky situations arose, we supported each other, we trusted each other's abilities, goals and then as people as well. These are all fundamentally characteristics to have between any team members who are striving to make something amazing together. Results matter, but they are not born from nothing and certainly not from inconsistency, unless you just get lucky. One individual may be strong, but if a team is truly effective, their strength is magnified exponentially by the others on that team. I was able to experience that feeling with this team. 

For one, we all put our heads down and worked our asses off. Not in a negative way, or a curtailing expression kind of a way, but in a way that encourages everyone to take accountability for their role, and for these roles to have clear, tangible, mutually-connected yet distinct goals. 

Secondly, the egos. They were left behind. Everyone worked together seamlessly because they were genuinely not interested in looking out for themselves alone if at all. Maybe being in North Korea can do that to people, but it was not just that, it was genuine and that's hard to describe. 

Thirdly, being highly proficient in something (mastering some aspect if you will) yet willing to learn other things is important of any truly active team member. If you have a skill that you can apply to your defined role and you take ownership over that, build trust in yourself, and trust that your fellow team members are doing the same, it becomes infinitely easier to build up confidence and look beyond your own abilities to see the goal of the project as it applies to the group.

If you pack a group of generalists together and thrown them only a couple of bones, eventually they will start to either fight over those scraps, or several will drop out and move on. On the other hand, if everyone is busy undertaking their specific role that plays towards their skills, allows them to build confidence and trust in not only themselves but also their teammates, then not much feels impossible. That's the beauty of teamwork and I was able to learn this this time around in North Korea. 

For me, it was always uncomfortable to relinquish fear when looking at the desired results of a project or company, and I was so used to working alone, even from when I was small, I loved working on projects and hobbies alone. And I have this tendency to place the need for a specific result on my own shoulders. Yet, I think that feeling is born out of mistrust and a lack of confidence, even if unintentionally so, and the need for openness, not just towards the project but towards other people and to oneself is paramount.

I also realized through this experience that I never knew how to ask for help or how to respond properly when someone asked for help. There is a way to ask for help, one that encourages someone to learn from you and what you're doing, but also a response to that, a full, trusting willingness to just do what the other person asks of you and know they they have your interests and your collective interests at heart when doing so. 

While I am thrilled with how this team was able to come together on the ground, hustle throughout the day, work together, leave our egos behind, and bring everything back together every night in debriefing sessions, I still recognize there is a lot of sorrow in my heart too. Sorrow from past failures, sorrow from the past year and a half, where I still believe I let my best friends down, maybe we let each other down, but not on purpose. There is just so much I had yet to learn and yes, sometimes you learn lessons the hard way, but I still cannot fully shake this feeling of sadness with a hint of regret. I know it will take time to rebuild those bonds, and I will work like hell to do that, because I care for them so much as people.

So let this moment be a reminder to myself. Act with compassion, act with honesty, leave my ego behind, trust my teammates, teach them when I can, learn from them with openness, stay sharp, consistency is more valuable than intensity, be careful with excitement and building expectations, resist the need to seek out external validation, and let results be a product of the collective rather than of my own dreams.  Take away this wonderful moment of teamwork and vow to act this way moving forward, vow to continuously improve, to make amends when it feels right, and to give others time to reflect as well. 

While of course I hope this team will continue to work together and produce amazing results, I will play things one step at a time and trust in everybody else. It's part of the journey, and no matter how you look at it, the journey is exciting.