I love the Olympics. Part of it is because of the spectacle and part of it is because I’m an acute track and field nerd, but I have to say that another significant part of it is that reinforces a lot of things that I’ve come to learn about life. I know it’s trite – and certainly heavily represented in the soft-focus human interest stories conventional TV coverage is throwing at me – but I find that sports can teach a lot of lessons, particularly about understanding other people.
Here’s an example. (And before you ask, this example has nothing to do with me. It’s just an example.)
Let’s all agree that startups are incredibly difficult. They’re mostly long, lonely strokes through the pool, punctuated by periodic gasps of air. You launched your first product? Awesome! Enjoy the traffic that the buzz of newness creates, because in two weeks you’re going to feel even further behind than when you started.
So what do you do? You grind and you grind and you grind and you grind. In a way, you’re declaring war: war against free time, war against other priorities, war against personal relationships, and war against your own emotions. Take it away, Thomas Powers:
The logic of war seems to be if the belligerent can fight, he will fight. That leaders will not surrender until surrender is academic. How is a national leader to explain the sacrifice of so much for nothing?
Next time you’re watching the Olympics – or any sport, really – watch very closely when the goals are scored, when the time is up. The events are almost always zero-sum, but I tend to almost always focus on the team on the wrong end of the match. They’re disconsolate, but I think most people misunderstand the nature of that: they’re not upset about what might have been, they’re upset because they let somebody down.
(And before someone asks about individual sports, let me stop you there. No man is an island; there are coaches, parents, and fans.)
This was in full-force the other day in the Olympics, when I was – of all the things I could have been doing for that hour – watching synchronized diving. One of the divers for Brazil had badly mangled his dive; he knew it the second he hit the water. When he got out of the pool, he was on the verge of tears; not for himself, but rather for letting his teammate down. You could see it so plainly on his face, even more so when his teammate tried in vain to console him. It was compelling to watch in the most heartbreaking of ways.
Looping this back to startups, this fear of letting your team down is one of the strongest and most pure virtues of early-stage startups. When the going is tough, more often than not what keeps the team coming back is the unspoken contract they have each other. The founders and the executives that do the best job of fostering that spirit are the ones who are truly worth backing, and it’s not an accident – it’s a gift, and that’s why certain founders get backed again and again.
This connection also illustrates a critical difference between a large company and a startup. Larger companies are simply unable to foster that spirit, essentially making every team member a mercenary unit, unwilling to fight through the muck. Lots of employee loyalty these days at Groupon, right? Timely to recent news, it also illustrates one of the problems that hit Yahoo! hard, particularly in their acqui-hire phase; when you bring teams on for their talent, it is next to impossible to keep that team together if their putative leader – the dreamer who is most likely to leave and try to start something new – leaves. The connection is no longer there.
Interestingly enough, the founders who are most successful fostering that spirit – at least from my anecdotal experience – seem to all have significant experience in some high-level team sport. But that is another topic for another day.