In Praise of Not Being a Team Player
- I interviewed doctors, scientists, and engineers. They all had very different experiences but almost unanimously agreed that teamwork is overrated. The engineers acknowledged that they need teamwork to get the job done, but most of them explained that their jobs were relatively mundane and involved replicating the work of pioneers from long ago. When I asked them what happens to the geniuses in their field today, they said most get bogged down by the team and are seen as troublemakers when they stray from what has become a very structured way of doing business. They all told me they would be nothing without inventors such as William Shockley who invented the transistor and courageously brought us from the era of vacuum tubes to the semiconductors that define computer hardware today. The message I got from the engineers was basically that their jobs are all about teamwork but without innovators, there are no jobs there in the first place.
The doctors I spoke to, especially the older ones, rolled their eyes when I brought up teamwork. They said the very nature of medicine is anti-teamwork because making one valid discovery is based on dozens and dozens of experiments that don’t pan out. To drag a team down an endless list of dead ends simply isn’t plausible, they said. Barry Marshall couldn’t convince his peers that stomach ulcers were caused by bacteria, so he swallowed the bacteria himself and was proved correct shortly after when it gave him both an ulcer and a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
The engineers lamented the lack of individualism in their profession and the doctors seemed annoyed by teamwork, but the scientists I spoke to about it were downright pissed. “Scientists are lemmings.” one biochemist told me. “They’re teamwork at its worst. They’re a mob.” He went on to tell me that his day consists of trying out ridiculous hypothesis after ridiculous hypothesis and when he’s finally successful, his peers viciously attack his findings trying to find a hole. When the data proves him right, everyone jumps onboard and wants to be part of the findings.