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Why Humanity Is Wired for Teams

We've survived and thrived not because of rugged individualism, but because we're unstoppable together.

Picture a Neanderthal in your mind.

If you’re like most people, you imagined a hairy, hunched-over, dim-witted brute. And he’s probably carrying a giant club, right? That’s the popular depiction of neanderthals we grew up with—our close cousin who was just too dumb to survive.

But what if I told you that Neanderthals—our hominin cousins who we co-existed with in Europe for several thousand years— were superhuman? Research over the past few decades has revealed that Neanderthals were not only much stronger than homo sapiens, they were also smarter. Their brains were 15 percent larger. As Rutger Bregman explains in his book Humankind: “We may boast a superbrain, but they packed a gigabrain. We have a Macbook Air, and they got the Macbook Pro.”

The scientific consensus is that Neanderthals were incredibly intelligent—building fires, cooking food, making clothing, drawing cave paintings. Put another way, they were the prehistoric equivalent of the star football player who’s valedictorian and plays the guitar.

So how did humans become the dominant species on Earth? Did we win a giant, bloody hominin war against all odds?

The answer to that question is far less dramatic than a 300-style showdown, but far more meaningful. Humans became the dominant species thanks to two superpowers: teamwork and storytelling.

And if you want to reach your potential in business and in life, they’re likely the two most important skills today.

Your teamwork superpower

In the mid-2000s, a team of German researchers designed a set of 38 tests to compare the intelligence of chimpanzees and orangutans with human toddlers. The tests looked at core components like spatial understanding, calculation, and causality.

Shockingly, the human subjects didn’t score any better than the orangutans and chimpanzees. But the researchers also tested a fourth skill: social learning. And we humans dominated. As Bregman explains, human beings are “ultra-social learning machines,” built with unique features that make it easier for us to trust others and form teams:

  • We blush, which shows others what we think and builds trust.
  • We have whites in our eyes, which lets others follow our gaze, making us an open book.
  • Unlike Neanderthals, we have a smooth forehead, allowing for subtle non-verbal communication via our eyebrows.
  • And we have a wide vocal range, which allows us to form complex sentences and use symbolic language.

Each of these traits makes us more of an open book to other humans. And they allow us to tap into our collective power.

The power of social learning

Socialization makes us smarter in incredible ways, and a thought experiment from anthropologist Joseph Heinrich shows us why.

Imagine a scenario in which there’s a tribe of humans and a tribe of Neanderthals. For dramatic effect, let’s say that 1 in 10 neanderthals were likely to invent something important—like a fishing rod on their own, while only 1 in 1,000 humans could do the same—so the Neanderthals are 100 times smarter.

But then let’s say each Neanderthal only has a social group of one to teach how to fish, while each human is part of a group of ten that they can teach. By Heinrich’s calculations, only 1 in 5 neanderthals would learn how to fish in a lifetime. But 99.9 percent of humans would learn the skill, having eventually learned it from someone else.

Humans are ultra-social learning machines, built with unique features that make it easier for us to trust others and form teams.

Our ability to work in teams has been a remarkable advantage. Hunter-gatherer tribes of 500 typically roamed in teams of 25 people. As a result, we commonly came across other groups and shared knowledge. This teamwork, Bregman writes, likely allowed us to survive the last ice age, whereas Neanderthals could not.

Popular culture loves to galvanize the lone genius, the rugged individual, the isolated visionary making magic on his own. Many of us imagine that our intelligence or skillset is the most valuable asset we have in business and in life.

But that couldn’t be further from the truth. As individuals, our capabilities are limited. But as a team learning from each other? We’re unstoppable—especially with the help of our second superpower.

Your storytelling superpower

How exactly did we pass along information so well from generation to generation? After all, the earliest writing didn’t appear until 5,500 years ago in Mesopotamia. Literacy only became common in the last few hundred years. Most people weren’t learning from textbooks and memos. So how did we not only learn how to fish, but also make boats and sail across the world?

Around 200,000 years ago, we developed a special vocal range that gave us access to distinct vowels, consonants, syllables, and even syntax, which meant we could do something very important: tell stories.

Humans became the dominant species thanks to two superpowers: teamwork and storytelling.

We’ve innately understood how stories pass on information for hundreds of thousands of years, and we’ve been proving it in academic research for the past 50. A 1969 Stanford study showed that students remembered 6-7 times more words when they were embedded in a story. Over the past 15 years, neuroscience research has shown that immersive stories trigger long-term memory encoding and the release of oxytocin in the brain, which results in greater feelings of empathy and connection.

Telling stories around the campfire was how we relayed lessons about fishing, agriculture, hunting, gathering, and how to be a good member of our tribe. Stories were also how we bonded with one another. As Jonathan Gottschall writes in The Storytelling Animal, we’re all born with storytelling skills. As children, we live more of our life in Neverland than reality. Even when we go to sleep at night, the mind stays awake, absorbed in a world of story.

Think about three things you’ve learned in the past week. Did you learn them through a memo or a story? Chances are, it’s the latter.

Then think about the last time you bonded with a coworker. Did you feel closer because you exchanged slide decks? Or did you start to bond that one day when you traded stories about your lives?

Unlocking our superpowers

After many of us spent two years behind a Zoom screen, cranking through our to-do lists, it’s easy to feel like we’re in an individualistic world.

But we face more complex challenges than ever. Technology is accelerating, changing how we build our businesses and making hard skills obsolete faster than ever before. It’s never been more important for us to work as a team, learn from each other, and maximize our superpowers. It has also never felt trickier. The new world of distributed work is creating teams with more talent and diverse perspectives than ever before, but not being in the same room forces us to rethink how we come together as a team.

Many of us imagine that our intelligence or skillset is the most valuable asset we have, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Over the next few months, that’s what I’m excited to explore here at Mission by A.Team. We’ll unpack ways we can leverage our superpowers to build great things and lead great teams. Because Neanderthals may get the better of us one on one, but nothing can beat us when we come together.

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