When I first got into college, I thought I could do anything. I felt like I could think up the answer to any problem or win any argument. As a result of this inflated perception of myself, I often worked alone. I never joined group studies. I would ask my professors if I could go solo on group works and projects, and they would often let me; when they didn’t, I would show up to group meetings with everything answered so we could finish up as soon as possible.
I felt that working alone was more efficient, that taking the time to get on the same page with other people was a waste. For a while, this worked really well for me. I got 4.0s while spending as little time as possible on school work.
But then a funny thing happened.
As I started to expose myself to new environments and meet new people, I slowly began to find that I couldn’t do everything I thought I could. There were things I could no longer understand on my own, there were things I could no longer do on my own. In a nutshell, I started to fail, and it was the best thing that could have happened to me.
To a certain extent, I felt helpless. I wondered if my mind was physically degenerating, if my mind wasn’t as sharp as it used to be. What I didn’t realize was that when you close your mind off from other people, it’s so easy to think you’re high and mighty because there’s no one else to challenge you up in your ivory tower.
There’s this aggrandized Western image of the loner figure that finds success and achieves great feats with minimal help. We have guys like Tony Stark whose own genius saves the world or Sherlock Holmes who single-handedly outwits the entire Scotland Yard over and over again. (You might argue that I’m cherry picking and/or ignoring the John Watsons; I admit I might be a little guilty of the former, but to the latter, I counter that the John Watsons of these stories are mere stepping stones for the success of the main heroes).
Western culture promotes this notion of ‘you can do anything if you put your mind to it.’ And quite frankly, I think it’s absurd. A big portion of ability is genetic and/or determined at the early stages of childhood. It’s a phrase that might lead to success for the few blessed, while leaving the rest largely disappointed.
Contrast this to Eastern philosophies, particularly Hinduism and Buddhism, which often emphasize a ‘transcending’ of the self. As a result, Eastern cultures generally tend to have more communal attitudes, and there’s an example close to home that illustrates this perfectly.
We’re all familiar with the metaphorical ‘great wall,’ or the rule imposed by Chinese parents banning their children from marrying others not of Chinese descent. I used to propose a dilemma to my Chinese friends of choosing between marrying their ‘soul mates’ or obeying their family’s wishes, and a lot of them chose the latter, to my surprise. By no means am I condoning ‘the great wall,’ but there’s something fascinating and endearing about someone foregoing their personal happiness because they see a greater importance in contributing to their community’s welfare.
As my ivory tower crumbled and the limitation of my abilities dawned on me, I began working with other people. Being incapable gave me a newfound appreciation for the talents of others, and for the first time in a long time, I allowed myself to really learn from others.
More than the personal gain of learning, however, I was able to see something else. I had always been chasing after things for my personal gain. I only really cared about how things would affect or benefit me.
When you’re working with a group though, you’re trying to achieve something that not only affects you, but that affects others too. There’s a collective gain. And there’s something very beautiful about a group of individuals coming together to achieve something bigger than all of them.
And at the end of the day, we’re always going to have deficiencies and there’s a very limited amount of knowledge any one person can take in. But when you get a group of people working together, people of different talents and deficiencies, they make up for one another’s differences, and they can strive for something that they never could have achieved individually.
There’s a song called Helplessness Blues by the folk band Fleet Foxes that succinctly expresses my point:
“I was raised up believing/I was somehow unique/Like a snowflake distinct upon snowflakes/Unique in each way you can see/And now after some thinking/I’d say I’d rather be/A functioning cog in some great machinery/serving something beyond me.”
To express it in that great language universal, at least, to Filipinos: I’d much rather be Danny Green in the San Antonio Spurs than a Kobe Bryant or a Lebron James.
I no longer feel invincible, and often I still feel absolutely helpless. But because of other people, that’s okay. I’m not saying we have to give up our individualities either. My individuality is something I will always have—I’d just rather have it contribute to some greater purpose, something bigger than me.