Some of the philosophies and lessons I've learned from my life experience don't have scientific backing but I have come to absolutely believe in through real world experience. More specifically, building a successful team through determined optimism is one such lesson.
The belief in the power of optimism is not something new. Here in Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs was famous for his "reality distortion field" and willing his grandiose beliefs into reality. Hinduism has been around for thousands of years and has a notion of manifesting reality through belief.
And there's also this from Walden:
I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws will be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings.
So back to the primary topic at hand: How do you build a successful team?
I'm an old guy who has had the opportunity to work with many teams during my career. In my experience, three key characteristics define teams that have achieved great success:
There are many things that could be discussed when it comes to building successful teams from process to skill sets to work habits, etc. However, for the purposes of this discussion, I want to focus on just this last characteristic of optimism.
In my experience, three types of team members exist:
For a team to be successful, a team leader must ensure a team consists of at least 1 key Winner (ideally him/herself) and Warners, but to also eliminate Whiners from the team as quickly as possible. One or two Whiners on a team won't necessarily kill a project, but Whiners can certainly be a cancer that eventually kills the patient.
I call the "determined optimist" on a team a "Winner" and believe they are absolutely critical to the success of the team.
So what's the difference between a Warner and a Whiner?
The key difference between them can be characterized by three primary tendencies:
Let's now talk more specifically about Winners vs. Whiners and the specifics about one vs. the other. In the case of Warners vs. Whiners, there are often cases where the line between the two types may not be easily distinguishable. However, the distinction between Winners vs. Whiners is absolutely clear.
The following table denotes key differences between these two types:
Let me clarify what I mean by a "determined optimist." Winners do not adopt blind optimism in which they live in an overly hopeful fantasy world. Instead, a "determined optimist" is differentiated from a general optimist in two key ways:
Jim Collins best describes the importance of optimism but with situational awareness in his book Good to Great in a principle he calls the Stockdale Paradox. The Paradox describes a lesson learned by James Stockdale who spent eight years in a Hanoi prison during the Vietnam War. He states of his experience in Good to Great:
I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.
But wait, there's a paradox: this is what Stockdale stated of the guys who didn't make it out of the Hanoi prison:
The optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go.
Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.
Jim Collins explains the seeming paradox in the following way:
This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end— which you can never afford to lose— with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.
Winners are "determined optimists": they believe in themselves, they believe they will win, but they also realize the state of their current reality no matter how brutal it may be.
Winners win. It's almost as simple as that. Winners find ways to win and Whiners wallow in negativity and can't think of "outside of the box" solutions. I know this can sound a bit vague but the difference with Winners is quite simply that they will figure out a way to make a bad situation work out.
Let's be more specific with a few examples to make this point more clear:
Hopefully, the point is now clear. Whiners accept situations at face value and throw their hands up. Winners don't accept bad situations and will do whatever it takes to figure out a way to win.
There's also this from Tony Robbins:
Most of my early career was mainly academic, rather than with real world business experience building products. Until that time, I was largely a Whiner. In fact, most of my career has been spent as a Whiner or Warner rather than as a Winner (which I'm not even saying I am now but have had moments of and am aspiring towards).
So let's get back to practical reality: What can you do today given this information?
Whether you focus on optimism or pessimism, whatever you focus on is what you're going to find in life.
On that note, I want to leave you with the words of super entrepreneur and social media master Gary Vaynerchuk: