On a sizzling summer afternoon, fifteen of us formed a circle inside the cool shade of an old log cabin. We had arrived for the Huang Fellows team building activity – a highly anticipated low-ropes course. Yet despite our excitement, we had little idea of what we would be doing, only that it was supposed to help us learn, as Dr. Waitzkin once said, that great things can happen when we work together. So here we were, smiling in tank tops and sunscreen, ready to tackle whatever challenges awaited us with open hearts and open minds.
Inside the circle stood Kim, our guide to the team-building activities. The first challenge was to pair up, battle each other in rock-paper-scissors, and share fun facts about ourselves.
The room soon erupted in loud chatter, chants of “rock, paper, scissors, shoot!” and yelps of delight and disappointment. We certainly learned new things about each other – one person had fallen off a boat; another had broken a nose with a refrigerator door! Yet amid all laughter and smiles, we had already known each other for a week, and for some of us, much longer. I wondered if our hilarious, eclectic facts would ever help us really know each other, in the way that close friends might.
Next, Kim summoned a bag of posters and described the activity: “if you could draw a picture of yourself that contained everything you wanted somebody else to know about you, what would it look like?”
We each grabbed a handful of markers and sat down on the porch, breaking from the adrenaline of rock-paper-scissors. Before we filled our blank posters with color and life, there was a pause. What objects, places, or symbols would we choose to represent ourselves? And how much of our “everything” could we convey through a simple drawing?
Half an hour later, the finished pictures featured myriad magazine cut-outs, hobbies, hopes, dreams, and places to call home. Together, they celebrated the overwhelming complexity of our lives, distilled down into self-portraits we were proud of: a compromise between what we felt most deeply about and what we were willing to share.
But the peaceful break didn’t last long – soon after, Kim announced the first outdoor activity: blindfolded dodgeball. We partnered up again, and one partner fired balls blindfolded while the other partner – the commander – gave instructions on how to turn and throw. Diverse commands echoed through the battlefield: “Throw it directly in front of you! 12 o’clock, now!” “Turn thirty degrees – run! Ah! No! You’ve been hit!” “Take three steps left, smaller steps!”
No matter what strategy, those of us blindfolded were at the mercy of our partners, faintly receiving commands through a cacophony of shouts, screams, and laughter. For those watching from the outside, what a hilarious and amazing scene it must’ve been. Commanders shouting with half-determination, half-frustration; their confuzzled partners droning around with arms outstretched like zombies, throwing dodgeballs into darkness.
In the aftermath of the dodgeball battle, we followed Kim into the woods, past a giant seesaw and finally, arriving at the long-awaited challenge: the real ropes course. It was a surprisingly simple contraption – a horizontal rope between poles, only a few feet off the ground, on which we were supposed to balance across.
One by one, we stepped on. Not alone, of course. Never alone – each time someone boarded the rope, the rest of us stood in formation with our twenty-eight hands close by, ready to catch, should the person on the rope falter or fall.
And when I, the very last person to go, finally made it across, the activities came to an end and we walked back on the windy path, out of the shady forest and into the unforgiving heat of summer.
As a final gesture, Kim poured out a bag of rubber livers, ears, bones, brains, hands, and lungs, asking us to pick a body part we felt was closest to the role we each played in the group that day. It was the culminating event, a final chance to present a self-image. I picked up a liver, ready to say something like, “I processed information, like the liver processes blood.” But it had all happened so quickly, and now it was over, and I needed more time to think. Others were more eloquent: bones were the structure of the group, ears were the keen observers, and hands were the support systems to fall back on. We all listened intensely to the honest ways we saw ourselves and came away knowing a little bit more about the type of people we wanted to be.
In the days that followed, I struggled to understand what the ropes course had meant. It was fun, no doubt, but it felt like the fleeting type of fun, the kind that comes once in a while, that fills you up, and that sooner or later, leaves. I remember waking up, ready to remember “team-building” as something more than another excursion; I wanted the activities to teach me, or make me feel, something remarkable. A piece of wisdom, or a moment of clarity, that might stick forever. But that day, like so many others, flew by. And here in the waning days of summer, most of us would probably not label it the most memorable day of all.
Rather, it’s become a small, but nonetheless important, part of this entire experience as Huang Fellows. Only now, writing this article on deadline nearly two months later, do I realize that team-building could never have been confined to a singular four-hour period in our lives. Team-building didn’t start and end at the low ropes course; no, it only began that day, and will never have a clear ending.
Still, two months can teach you a lot. Since that hot summer day at the ropes course, we’ve read about science laws and de-extinction policy, listened to stories of white tigers and hummingbirds, heard the exciting thunderstorm of our neurons, experienced the hope of cancer survival, and remembered that race has no genetic marker. We’ve felt the academic passions of each other: passions that launched us into Duke, and then into Huang Fellows. And when those passions came to surface in TED talks, podcasts, debates and seminars, we clapped for each other every time along the way.
We did all of this and did it all together, yet there’s no ultimate lesson I can take away, no poignant sentence could sum up these two months of team-building into a singular, perfect point. We are too complicated for that type of proverbial remark. Perhaps “team-building,” by itself, is just a hollow term that isn’t ever defined clearly but can be explained only by a feeling. For me, it’s the feeling that this group of people will go on to do not just successful, but good things because they represent the best of genuine collaboration and encouragement among Duke students. It’s the feeling of holding a rubber liver, talking about how the liver is me, and seeing smiles in return. It’s the feeling of crossing a tiny tightrope, always expecting to fall, and being lifted up by the chants of “we got you.” All along, these people were there – with unapologetic optimism in the power of encouragement – to make that feeling possible.
Jake Wong is 2017 Huang Fellow studying global health and chemistry. Through the Huang Fellows program, he hopes to build his scientific knowledge while discussing its implications with peers and mentors, and to better understand the relationship between scientists and lawmakers.