I Hate(d) Group Projects

I have a strong memory of a particular group project in middle school. It was the eighth grade, in my “IPS” Class – an acronym I could never remember but recently looked up. It stands for “Introductory Physical Science.” Boring, like the class and its materials. I loved the teacher, Mr. P, but found the material dry and stressful. It was a bit too above my skill level at the time, and I struggled to keep up with others in the class.

I especially hated the frequent experiments we had to do. Boil a test tube or whatever nonsense it was. I felt like I had to get everything right, and I never understood exactly what we were doing, or why, or how to do it. I honestly think it was pretty consistently the stupidest and most ashamed I remember feeling in my life.

Anyways, at one point we had this group project. It was an assigned topic with an assigned group. Topic: research and present on a source of renewable energy. We chose wind energy.

Group: two kids I didn’t really like, and they didn’t really like me, either. I didn’t feel comfortable around them. One of them was mean, and I think looking back on it that he probably had significant issues at home. The other was a little friendlier, but wasn’t particularly warm or interested in me. They were, however, interested in me doing the work for this group project.

I was stressed out, anxious – I wanted to do well in the class, I was afraid of failing and I wanted the teacher to like me. The other kids didn’t seem to really care as much as I did. One flat out didn’t care at all – he did barely any work, save for the required speaking during the presentation. The other did a bit of research to help me, but at the end of the day, I’m pretty sure I did 90% of the work on that project. At least as I remember it.

The presentation went fine. I was nervous, I dreaded it, but I’d done the work and helped my two classmates to fumble through appearing like they knew what they were talking about with wind energy. But I walked away hating group projects, resenting the students and the class.

For a long time, that was my mood around collaborations with others: avoid at all costs. Others will take advantage of you, you won’t enjoy it, and nothing good can come of this. That was what I internalized from that experience.

It’s a surprise to look back on my experience in recent years, and notice that this has gradually shifted – and in the exact opposite direction.

I’ve found myself making music videos, blog posts, books, software products, online courses, and more with friends and allies. I’ve done many collaborations, with many different kinds of collaborators, and – shockingly – enjoyed myself. I enjoyed the process, and I’ve been proud of what we’ve created.

What changed?

I think, looking back on it, I had the opportunity to do projects that were the exact opposite of the one I had in middle school. I got to choose who I collaborated with, and on what. I could say no to projects or collaborators I didn’t want to work on, and I could say “hell yeah” to projects and collaborators I did.

Like working with James Stuber on the Digital Productivity Coach. Seeing how James and I had the same productivity skills in common, and a shared vision, so we could divide and conquer, working largely asynchronously on the same project for years to make something bigger and more useful than either of us could have done alone.

Or making illustrations with Sílvia Bastos for my blog posts. I saw how the first article I did with her, on Daoist sexual practices, took my longform writing on something that’s an exciting topic but actually pretty dry in the details, and bring it to life. I saw how people responded more deeply, how the article resonated more widely. My words, her art, one project.

And I saw the impacts the projects I made were having, like the Coach helping people learn productivity skills and level up, or my blog posts informing people on topics they were interested in, or the music videos I’ve made bringing a smile to people’s faces.

Good projects, with good people, skilled collaborators I enjoyed working with, with good results, good feedback.

Choose the projects, choose the collaborators, listen to the feedback. Good projects, good people, good results. Rinse, repeat.

With each project I’ve done, I’ve gotten better at collaboration. Each project has been a little bigger, a little more ambitious.

My first music video had a team of two other people, a musician and a video editor (with Michael Curzi doubling as a marketing advisor). For the second music video – an animated music video, not just live action or stock footage – I worked with the same musician, a two-person film crew, two funders, an animator/video editor, and two marketing people.

Each project, a little bigger, a little more ambitious. Baby steps compounding towards increasingly epic possibilities.

I’m looking forward to seeing what’s possible in years to come. I’ve scoped out a lovingkindness EDM album, and dreamed of making a metta-focused dance club. And that’s just what I can imagine – who knows which projects will arise as possibilities, or which collaborators I’ll be able to work with – what we’ll be able to accomplish together – what gifts we’ll be able to give the world.