It’s something I’ve heard a lot this year—most recently, amidst the kids’ end-of-year festivities.
Silas (age 6) just wrapped up his kindergarten year, which was wonderful in every way. I couldn’t have asked for a better first school experience, and I told each of his four teachers so on the last day of school, thanking them effusively for making that possible.
They agreed, saying Silas had a great year. Everyone had a great year.
And then they all—all four of them—said something interesting, some variation on a theme: it was a good year, an exceptional year, because they had a great group of kids.
They wanted to make sure I understood how lucky I was: not only were the individual students all good (as they usually are) but the personality mix was right. The students complemented each other, balanced each other out. There was a well-constructed web of relationships, the right balance of calm and energy. This doesn’t happen every year.
Over the years the teachers have learned that while you can encourage it, you can’t force it. Some years there’s a magical synergy; some years (most years) there’s not. The teachers have learned to notice when the magic happens, and appreciate it for what it is. You can’t let something that good go unacknowledged.
The magic doesn’t always happen, of course, whether you’re in kindergarten or college or a bona fide adult.
Adults have their fellow-travelers as well, of course. My husband and I were once in a series of small groups that was so disastrous that the organization’s leadership sought our permission to use our experiences as the basis for a “what not to do” training video. (The video was hilarious, and weirdly reassuring.)
At school, work, our neighborhoods, I’ve been in bad groups, and good groups, and a very few exceptional groups—the ones with wonderful individuals and wonderful synergy.
I’m tempted to write off the bad groups as unlucky and the good groups as near-misses, wanting to believe that every group can be exceptional.
But I know this: while I haven’t enjoyed them as much, I have learned so very much from the bad groups.
I’ve learned to pay attention: what’s working, what isn’t, and why? What do I bring to the table, and what do others bring? What personalities are indispensable, what hard questions have to be asked, what difficult topics need to be broached, and what behaviors will kill a group?
I’ve learned to notice a group for what it is. To remember that I can’t force a group, but I can nudge it a little, one direction or the other.
I hope my future—and my kids’ futures—are filled with many, many exceptional groups. Of course I do.
But wisdom is born of experience, and hope is a function of struggle. It’s not an overstatement to say I’ve cherished my exceptional groups. Yet I am also profoundly grateful for the bad ones. Maybe not during, but certainly after.
Do you resonate with this? I’d love to hear about your good, bad, and truly exceptional groups in comments.