The Boys in the Boat, written by Daniel James Brown, is the true story of nine Americans and their epic quest for gold in eight0oared rowing at the 1936 Olympics. It’s a story of work, determination, overcoming adversity, defeating obstacles, but mostly it is about teamwork. If you haven’t read it, I would encourage you do so. It is a powerful and moving story. Here are some of the lessons I gleaned from the book:
1. Mastering teamwork requires practice. A thousand things have to be learned, mastered, and brought to bear in precisely the right way to propel a twenty-four-inch-wide cedar shell, carrying three-quarters of a ton of human flesh and bone, through the water with any semblance of speed and grace. The trick is to find the few people who had the potential for raw power, superhuman stamina, indomitable will power, and the intellectual capacity necessary to master the details of technique.
2. Disregard your own ambitions. Success requires the ability to disregard your own ambitions, to throw off your own ego, to work not just for yourself, not just for glory, but for the others on the team.
3. Go the distance. Rowing is extraordinary beauty preceded by brutal punishment. It requires using every muscle group, over a long period of time, without rest. Boat races don’t have time outs. One rows until they tell you it’s over.
4. Overcome pain. The Olympic standard—two-thousand-meter race takes the same toll as playing two basketball games back-to-back. It exacts the toll in about six minutes. Pain is part and parcel of the deal. It’s not a question of whether you will hurt, or of how much you will hurt; it is a question of what you will do, and how well you will do it, while pain has her wanton way with you.
5. Focus. An oarsman must keep his mind focused from the moment they step into the boat until they cross the finish line. His whole world must shrink down to what’s inside the boat. Nothing outside the boat—not the boat in the next lane, not the cheering crowd, not last night’s date—can enter the successful oarsman mind.
6. Know your heart. To win a race, especially a close race, one where your opponent was equal or superior, you have to know that you have something in reserve, something you have not yet shown, something that will make him doubt himself, and make him falter when it counts the most. It is partly confidence, and partly know your own heart.
7. Character is more important than skill.
8. Pull your own weight. The boat goes better when he does.
9. No stars. Great oarsmen and oarswomen possess enormous self-confidence, strong egos, titanic will power, immune to frustration. And yet at the same time—and this is key—they have no stars. The team effort is all that matters. Not the individual, not the self.
10. Races are not won by clones. They are won by crews with a carefully balanced blend of both physical abilities and personality types, of ego and humility. They must adjust to the needs and capabilities of the other.
11. Trust each other. Trust produces a power at work within that is more than one can imagine. Absolute confidence in each other makes the difference. Sometimes all you can do is abandon all doubt, trust absolutely without reservation that each teammate is doing precisely what they need to do at the precisely the instant they need to do it.
12. Working together as one. It isn’t enough for the muscles of a crew to work in unison; their hearts and minds must also be as one. The losing of self entirely to the cooperative effort of the crew as a whole.
How does your team match up to these criteria?
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