2021

Try this astrophysicist’s “Genius” tip for better collaboration

4 min read
Eli Woolery
  •  Jun 8, 2021
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A big misconception leaders hold about collaboration is that bringing the brightest minds together leads to great things happening. According to MIT astrophysicist Sara Seager, creating an all-star team for a common mission is simply just one small step towards pushing boundaries. She should know: As part of her mission to discover habitable planets outside our solar system, she’s had to lead a cross-disciplinary team of scientists.

No matter how brilliant the individuals in the room are, the team will experience some initial friction while working together, Sara says. How a leader navigates that friction, however, is the giant leap that can open up a new universe of opportunity. Lucky for us, the MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellow stopped by the latest episode of the Design Better Podcast to chat about her experience doing exactly that.

Sara says her success as a leader stems from one best practice: Acquiring a base-level understanding of her collaborators’ disciplines as early as possible. In her memoir The Smallest Lights in the Universe, for example, she discusses how she’s not a trained biochemist, but that she didn’t let that stop her when faced with a cross-disciplinary project. Taking a cue from the physical world, she wandered outside the arbitrary lines of her field and took the time to brush up on the new topic before her work began.

In the past picking up a new skill, learning a subject, or refreshing a topic meant a trip to the library stacks or making friends with a professor; today, however, Sara says it’s much easier with the availability of online classes. Just remember: Grant yourself permission to try something new, fail, and, ultimately, do better, she says. The sky’s the limit!

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