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Through the years, entrepreneurs, consultants, and inspirational speakers have turned over ideas about the value of collaboration. The benefits and best practices of working together have been the subject of many a corporate initiative and TED Talk, and the default attitude in many corporate environments seems to be that fifteen heads are smarter than one. The pitfalls of teamwork have likewise been duly TED Talked, so this post won’t serve as yet another reminder that too many cooks spoil the broth. Instead, I’d like to encourage you to scrutinize the times when you default to collaboration, seeking assistance or corroboration, when perhaps the problem is best addressed alone.

I’ll start with a story. A few years ago, I was tasked with interviewing numerous high-level individuals in various industries and stations of government. The project was overwhelming. Everyone I wanted to talk to had no-nonsense gatekeepers, none of whom seemed to have a moment to spare for someone they didn’t already know by name. I was slammed with succinct rejections and rude mid-sentence interruptions. It quickly became apparent that to get to the person I was after, I needed to develop certain skills through trial and error that I knew I didn’t have yet, and the only way to do that was to get comfortable improvising under tight time constraints (in most circumstances I was given only a few seconds to pitch a complicated interview.)

By cultivating a feeling of comfort in the face of a frequently hostile unknown, I was able to develop the necessary confidence to face challenges instantaneously, without a second thought. In reflecting on that transition, it occurred to me that in less time-sensitive circumstances, I had been in a habit of looking to others for reassurance in my plans of action. I began to notice it all around me. Throwing oneself at a problem without any backup seems to be a common fear.

Whether we’re subconsciously seeking validation for our chosen course of action, or we actually think we need a helping hand to solve a problem, the first step shouldn’t be to seek out an additional voice. Being forced by circumstance to rely upon myself in a difficult endeavor showed me there are a great many instances where the problem isn’t as difficult as it appears. It simply requires effort, and by seeking assistance before putting in the effort, you’ll never know whether or not you could have accomplished the task yourself.   

What stands to be gained by tackling difficult problems on one’s own is a thoroughgoing sense of confidence, curiosity, and willingness. One success leads to another, and before you know it, no problem presents itself immediately as too complicated or cumbersome. Truly, after some investigation and diagnosis, plenty of challenges prove too great for one set of hands, but often enough a group is gathered when one would be enough.

By successfully interviewing senators and CEOs when initially it seemed impossible, I got in the habit of facing challenges on my own before asking for a hand. The result has been one discovery after the next, and a sense of confidence and realistic expectation. So in spite of the many circumstances in which teamwork indeed makes the dream work, I encourage you to scrutinize your assumptions about those instances, as you may discover opportunities to take the initiative on important problems.

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