The Startup Game: Play with a grudge or rise above it?

In the competitive world of startups, entrepreneurs are constantly facing naysayers and haters. Side note: if you aren’t, that probably isn’t a great sign because ideas die quietly in apathy’s silence. One of the most challenging aspects of running a startup is knowing what advice to listen to and what advice, or negative feedback, to ignore. Parsing and putting to use certain feedback is a topic I have written about before, so today I want to discuss how to handle poor feedback, poor criticism or hate with regards to fueling your motivation to succeed.

Pictured above, Michael Jordan and Tom Brady are two of the best athletes, competitors and winners of all time. What they share in common is that they weren’t necessarily the most naturally talented players, but rather became the best by outworking and outsmarting their peers while maintaining an almost insane level of discipline around their crafts. Jordan was cut from the high school basketball team when he was a sophomore and Brady has faced an uphill battle at most stages of his career, being benched in college and being drafted 199th entering the NFL. Along the way, both of these men have admitted that other people’s doubt often fueled their motivation to succeed.

In his Hall of Fame acceptance speech, Jordan famously (or infamously depending on how you look at it) talked about all the people along the way who doubted him, got in his way or generally challenged him on his way to success. He talked about how all these people fueled his competitive fire, and anyone who has ever watched him play knows this spirit is basically unmatched by anyone else in the world of sports, other than by maybe Brady. During the recent Deflategate saga, a look into Brady’s texts and emails show a competitive spirit of the highest level, focused on besting his rival Peyton Manning.

As someone whose early life was dominated by athletics, I brought my version of this competitive spirit with me when I first began my entrepreneurial career twelve years ago. I used to spend a decent amount of my mental energy on the all the VCs that told me they didn’t like my idea (56 in total), the experienced execs that told me to bring in a real CEO, and the trolls on social media that would find something wrong with everything that we did.

These people certainly fueled my fire, and if I am being totally honest still do to some extent. While this spirit provides a certain amount of mental fuel it also burns a good amount of mental fuel. And just as a startup with a high burn rate requires lots of capital, burning this kind of mental fuel requires a good amount of mental capital, which can be quite taxing.

After selling the business in 2012 and taking a startup hiatus for a few years during our earn-out period, I have spent a good amount of time thinking and tinkering with my mental optimization. How can I get the most out of what limited mental horse power I have been given? How do I go from 10 mental miles per gallon of mental energy to 20?

One of the things I have found is that in order to endure and succeed at the marathon that is building a truly valuable company, the competitive spirit that can drive an athlete to beat their opponents needs to be adjusted in the world of business (and maybe life, but that is above my pay grade for now). mental endurance is key to success in the world of startups, and anything that is high mental burn should be assessed just like a high burn line item in your budget. Further, the world of startups is much different than sports — very rarely are you completely head to head with another person or company in the sense that their defeat directly contributes to your gain. Obviously there are situations when you have direct competitors and you want to win the market, but being alone in a market usually isn’t a good sign.

In 2015, it was an article about Tom Brady that actually guided me to a book called the The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom, that helped me evolve my thinking on how to harness the naysayers, copy-cats and haters. One of the “four agreements” is to never take thing personally, because what others do is just a projection of their own reality, and when you are immune to the opinions and actions of others you can avoid needless suffering. In the case of startups, if you’re able to fuel your fire by the overall desire to prove to the world that you are right and can succeed versus holding on to individual slights, you can save an immense amount mental energy and more objectively determine what feedback is useful and what feedback can be discarded.

Admittedly, I am nowhere near where I want to be with regards to perfecting how one ignores some of the hardships collected over the course of building a startup, but by constantly reminding myself that negative interactions are almost never personal towards me or my company, I’ve been able to be much more effective in my job. It has significantly helped elevate my empathy which in turn has makes me a better product owner, CEO and teammate.

So while I think it is good to fuel your competitive fire with the desire to prove the world wrong, don’t get too hung up on the individual logs or you might get burnt.

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