Or how mental toughness is just as important as physical toughness.
A few years back I was reading Run! by Dean Karnazes, which chronicled his foray into distance running and endurance sports, and what fascinated me was not any of the information about technique or tips (there weren’t any that I remember), but the mental journey Karnazes took. While reading Eat and Run by Scott Jurek I noticed a similar theme, which was that of transformation. The transformation in both these guys was not really about physical transformation but mental. You see when you get into endurance sports, the playing field is less purely about physical gifts nature may have bestowed upon you, and more about your ability to push not only your physical limits but also your mental ones.
Growing up my father instilled a serious level of competition in me by playing sports and games with me. There were no easy wins, but there was always a desire to destroy the competition. Nothing tasted sweeter than victory. This was true in board games, sports, and academics as well. The opponent wasn’t always external though. Just as important as it was to beat the competition, it was important to surpass one’s own previous records. Every time I run a race, and I am not competing to win, I’m battling against my own pre-conceived limitations and my past performances. It’s important to note that there was never any shame in losing, as long as I competed. This last part was an important lesson I didn’t fully grasp until much later.
Startups share a lot of similarities with running. Both require a basic skillset & toolset, and an unwavering desire to win. In a startup you are looking to do something better, faster, or smarter than your competition. Your competition is the reigning champion of your sport, the 800lb gorilla in your marketplace. Your goal is to disrupt their reign atop the marketplace. Startups also require patience, and mental toughness to deal with the emotional ups and downs that come with building a company. From one day to the next you can experience feelings of sadness or elation, stress from all sides to pure zen, it is always an unknown and often that emotional instability can defeat even the most well prepared entrepreneurs. You can have the most talented technical team in the world, but if you don’t have the strength of will or character to compete at the highest levels it will be all for naught if you can’t persevere. Startups are rarely a sprint in unto themselves. Startups are a marathon, an obstacle filled marathon. The finish line being whatever you decide at the outset (liquidity, profit, etc).
Both Jurek and Karnazes are legendary in the field of endurance running for their ability to repeatedly apply incredible amounts of stress and pain to their bodies and persevere. They can push their bodies past the point where most would give up and go home. They push their thresholds well beyond any physical advantages they may have (running 100+ miles straight is a feat very few can say they’ve done). It is their mind that allows them to go those extra miles that even the most accomplished marathoners won’t attempt. They lack the ability to accept limitations; or they possess the ability to set goals well beyond a normal human would dare.
In the startup world we see these characters every so often and think we too can be one of them. Take Elon Musk, the real life Tony Stark, he is attempting to push the limits of technology and science in ways that very few have attempted in decades. Musk seems to have taken technological limitations as mere speed bumps on the path to achieving radical innovation and affecting change in our world. Its this combination of understanding the tech but believing in something far beyond that has allowed Musk, Jobs, Bezos, Brin/Page, or Zuckerberg even to push their companies to the forefront of their respective fields. These guys are all outliers, but none are 100% smarter than you or I. None of them have a secret ability to innovate that is beyond us. They all have the mental toughness necessary to finish the long run.
So if there are any lessons we can take from both startup heroes and ultra-marathoners, it is that most of our limitations are in our minds, once you’ve figured out how to control them, you can go really far.