Why Success Hinges on Collaboration, Not Competition

When dusk slowly crept upon a mangrove forest lining a river deep in a jungle in Southeast Asia, Professor Hugh Smith, a biologist far from his home in Washington State, looked out over the lush landscape. Suddenly the entire canopy glowed as if a lightning bolt had shot out from the tree. Then all went dark. 

Once his capacity for mental reasoning returned, Smith realized the trees were not, in fact, glowing. They were covered with bioluminescent lightning bugs, all illuminating at the exact same time. Upon returning home, Smith wrote a journal article about his experience, but no one believed him.

Now, thanks to modern science, we know how and why this puzzling behavior actually happened—it’s for evolutionary purposes. Researchers published a journal article in Science explaining that when lightning bugs light up at random times, the likelihood of a female responding to a male in the deep, dark recesses of a mangrove forest is 3 percent. But when lightning bugs light up together, the likelihood of females responding climbs to 82 percent. 

Society often teaches us that it’s better to be the only bright light rather than be in a forest of bright lights. After all, isn’t that the way so many people think about success today? When any resource—be it acceptance to the most prestigious college or an interview with a top-ranking company—is limited, we are taught that we have to compete in order to differentiate ourselves. 

Yet research shows this isn’t actually the case. 

When the fireflies could time their pulses with one another to the millisecond, it allowed them to space themselves apart perfectly, thus eliminating the need to compete. In the same way, when we help others become better, we can actually increase the number of available opportunities instead of vying for them.

Like the fireflies, once we learn to coordinate and collaborate with those around us, we all begin to shine brighter, both individually and as an ecosystem.


This article originally appeared in the January/February 2021 issue of SUCCESS magazine.
Photo by GaudiLab/Shutterstock.com

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Shawn Achor is a Harvard-trained researcher and best-selling author of The Happiness Advantage and Before Happiness. Get a daily dose of happy at Shawn's Facebook page.

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