In college I was a rower on the crew team at Ithaca College. I spent the summer of 2000 in Ithaca before beginning my senior year that fall. I had a great downtown apartment on the Commons with some schoolmates and a decent job that paid the rent. Every afternoon I'd go down to the boathouse and spend a couple hours rowing by myself in a single racing shell under the watchful eye of our coaches.
The training paid off, and 2 weeks into the start of our fall season I set a team record; pulling 5,000 meters in 17:16. You might think that dedicated practice and training is the moral of this this story. It is not.
Two days after I went 17:16 a teammate went the same distance in 17:12. Later another teammate broke the 17 minute barrier at 16:52. In October of 2000 our crew went to the Head of The Charles in Boston (one of our sport's marquee events). We finished 4th, beating a very long list of rivals.
Even 15 years later that result at the Head of the Charles is one of my proudest moments. I'm sure it remains so for my 8 teammates as well. When we said good-by and parted ways I thought I'd never be with a team like that again. "If only I could do this forever." I wanted rowing to be my career.
But now, 15 years later, I am part of another great team. We're not rowers, and mostly terrible athletes, but we are really, really good at building a software product. Every day I do things at work that I didn't think I could do because of the confidence and challenges brought by my teammates.
It's like a perfect storm of success. We are challenged by our teammates, our confidence increases, we find success, and continue to challenge each other again. The cycle of success goes round and around.
This is not something you can teach to your team. You can't suddenly get religion. You have to build it from the start and reinforce it every day. You have to encourage everyone to challenge themselves and challenge their teammates. You have to be drinking the Kool-Aid.
And just as importantly you have to protect this culture of success in your team. Potential team members need to be vetted, not only on their skills and qualifications, but more importantly the excitement they have about joining a challenging team.
I've seen this in job candidates. They hear us talk about learning new technologies and programming languages and their eyes light up. We tell them we choose a technology not because we are familiar with it, but because it is the best tool for the job, and they move closer to the edge of their seat. We ask them what they would be excited to work on and they say "All of it, but mostly just learning all this stuff seems like the cool part".
Teams are about people, and people like to be challenged. Challenge your teammates. They'll be more successful. Their confidence will grow. And, so will yours :)
This is where excellence comes from.