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Most institutions of higher education highly encourage teamwork, but in the West, we still have an undercurrent of individualism in every team setting. How can we move past it?

We assume, throughout our college educations, that we learn how to work in a team through group projects and constant interaction with our classmates.

But the fact is that most schools don’t teach us the skills we need for truly effective teamwork – at least, not any real collaborative skills beyond the logistics, such as when2meet, Google docs and evaluation surveys.

The most important element of teamwork, after all, is a spiritual one. Teamwork means unity, and it takes skill, patience and persistence to build unity among people. That effort always begins with encouragement. As the Baha’i teachings say:

One must see in every human being only that which is worthy of praise. When this is done, one can be a friend to the whole human race. If, however, we look at people from the standpoint of their faults, then being a friend to them is a formidable task ….

Thus is it incumbent upon us, when we direct our gaze toward other people, to see where they excel, not where they fail. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 169.

Success relies on people learning how to see potential in each other, and genuinely loving each other. It relies on having a common vision and a common purpose, and on developing the ability to have profound, selfless conversations, where decisions can be made in a detached manner, without anyone feeling alienated or underappreciated. These more complex human skills surpass the merely logistical aspects of teamwork.

In any endeavor to create change, I find it helpful to remember this Baha’i quote, especially in the moments when group dynamics become difficult, or it seems easier to do something myself without taking the time to empower others:

Those who work singly are as drops, but, when united, they will become a vast river carrying the cleansing water of life into the barren desert places of the world. Before the power of its rushing flood, neither misery, nor sorrow, nor any grief will be able to stand. Be united! It is rather dangerous to be an isolated drop. It might be spilled or blown away. – Abdu’l-Baha, quoted by Lady Blomfield in The Chosen Highway, p. 171.

As a student, I try to heighten my awareness of the spiritual implications of the language I use and the attitudes I bring to a group dynamic, attempting to hone my capacity to see people’s strengths and encourage them to shine. We can all recognize that the most knowledgeable and experienced person may not always be the most educated or eloquent person in the room.

On this subject, the Baha’i teachings say:

If a person be unlettered, and yet clothed with divine excellence, and alive in the breaths of the Spirit, that individual will contribute to the welfare of society, and his inability to read and write will do him no harm. And if a person be versed in the arts and every branch of knowledge, and not live a religious life, and not take on the characteristics of God, and not be directed by a pure intent, and be engrossed in the life of the flesh — then he is harm personified, and nothing will come of all his learning and intellectual accomplishments but scandal and torment.

If, however, an individual hath spiritual characteristics, and virtues that shine out, and his purpose in life be spiritual and his inclinations be directed toward God, and he also study other branches of knowledge — then we have light upon light: his outer being luminous, his private character radiant, his heart sound, his thought elevated, his understanding swift, his rank noble.

Blessed is he who attaineth this exalted station. — Abdu’l-Baha, from a tablet translated from the Persian.

College offers the opportunity to focus on both our material strengths and our spiritual qualities, and become “light upon light,” through hard work, service and close connections with others. But it’s also not the end of the journey. I try to remind myself that I will continue to grow long after I leave college, and I will be able to improve myself until the day I die. That removes some of the urgency and fear of not doing enough, and allows me to focus on acquiring these capacities.

If, like me, you’re in college seeing many of these messages discussed superficially without analysis, maybe it’s time to start a conversation with your peers or your professors. Students are part of every campus culture, and have the power to change things, one conversation at a time.

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