Entrepreneurial learning journey: lessons from the Winter Olympics

Sweden outclassed hosts South Korea to regain the women’s curling Winter Olympic title in Pyeongchang at the weekend, winning 8-3 to win gold for a third time and improve on the silver medal won in Sochi four years ago.

Sweden were competing in their fourth consecutive Olympic final, winning in 2006 and 2010, whilst the South Korean team’s silver earned the hosts their first Olympic curling medal. The sport was relatively unknown in South Korea until the impressive run by the team of school friends, nicknamed the ‘Garlic Girls’ as they all come from a small garlic-growing region.

Team GB women’s team lost 3-5 to Japan in the third-place play off, having lost 5-10 to Sweden in the semi-final, ending my new-found love affair with the sport which has gripped me for the past week or so. Skip Eve Muirhead had promised she would thrive under the slow‑burning tension of an Olympic competition, but at the crucial point of both matches, we were unable to make it count when it mattered.

I became addicted to the spectacle of the curling competition, the sights, the sounds, the strategy and tactics, watching every minute I could of play on ‘sheet’ loving the shouting and the noise – The Roaring Game, originates from the rumbling sound the 44-pound granite stones make when they travel across the ice.

One of the world’s oldest team sports, curling originated in the C16th in Scotland, where games were played during winter on frozen ponds and lochs. It’s an icy alternative to shuffleboard, and I had to know more.

For example, did you know that the ‘sheet’ is covered with tiny droplets of water that become ice and cause the stones to ‘curl’, or deviate from a straight line? These water droplets are known as ‘pebble’.

When the stone touches the pebble, there’s friction, which can slow down the stone and makes it curl away from its straight path to the ‘house’ – the target that looks like a big bulls eye. The centre of the ‘house’ is known as the ‘button’, and basically, the object of the game is to get your stones closer to the button than the other team gets theirs.

Obviously, this friction is not always a good thing, which is why you see frantic sweeping of the ice in front of the stone. The sweeping raising the temperature of the ice, which diminishes the friction between the pebble and the stone, and keeps the stone moving in a straight line. Still with me?!

In each ‘end’ (period of play), both teams send eight stones down the sheet. Once all sixteen stones have been delivered, the team with the stone that’s closest to the button effectively wins the end. Only this team will earn any points for the end. It gets a point for each of its stones that are in the house and closer to the button than the other team’s closest stone.

Sounds complex, but it’s a lively spectacle and competitive, you soon gest the gist of the rules once play is underway, and like any Olympic sport, the commitment, passion and focus of the competitors is something to behold.

The last ten days made me an unabashed curling fanatic. The only problem? Most matches started at 1.30am in the morning. So, armed with as much green tea, toast and marmite as I could handle, I kept myself awake to the last throw of the key matches.

From there, curling adrenaline kept me going the rest of the way, and GB victories were frequent, at which point I was silently jumping up and down in pure joy, trying to celebrate the moment without waking my family. I often went to bed at 4.00am filled with pure joy.

I also became an armchair fan of the US men’s team, who beat Sweden 10-7 to win the gold medal. What made them so special? I thought about that question, and started to particularly focus on what made the US curling team such a good group, besides their curling skills.

I realised that each of the four players on the team brought something different, but important to the squad, and it’s an interesting aspect of building a team of different but complimentary skills and mindsets.

The unassuming John Landsteiner wasn’t a particularly loud voice during in-match tactics discussions. Instead, with quiet professionalism, he did what was asked of him and put his team in positions to win with his successful early shots.

Matt Hamilton occupied the complete opposite end of the spectrum. Loud, bold, and recognisable (with his trademark baseball cap and moustache), Hamilton always tried to identify and advocate for the most aggressive shot possible. His more conservative teammates often overruled him (correctly), but that willingness to take the tough shot came up big in vital moments.

The vice-skip Tyler George was active in tactical discussions, but that wasn’t his most notable trait. I couldn’t take my eyes off George after he shot, because no matter how well he did, he never looked satisfied. There was never any post-shot celebration, only thinking (or sometimes wincing) about how his shot could have been even better.

Finally the skip, John Shuster, has a fascinating story that’s worth a read. In short, despite numerous setbacks stretching back nearly a decade, Shuster never gave up on himself or his team, and with the weight of a nation on his back, pushed this group to heights never before reached by a US team.

So, does your team have John Landsteiners, folks who build the foundations via their quiet professionalism and skill?  Where are your Matt Hamiltons? People who are willing to occasionally make the outlandish call, do something special or fresh? Do you have a Tyler George, someone who is never satisfied with ‘good enough,’ and who are always searching for ways to be better?

Each Olympian strives for peak performance and achieving a personal best, they have the determination and mind set of a winner, choosing to move forward even when it is uncomfortable – all of which we seek to emulate in a startup.

These are not ordinary people. Let’s face it, most of us are not motivated enough to get up early and practice our hearts out for six hours a day, seven days a week. Most of us couldn’t handle the pressure of having the world watch us, carefully scrutinising our every move. But for the Olympic athlete, this is what drives them – competition, challenge, defeat and victory – and they come alive, living for that moment of opportunity to win.

Olympians start out as ordinary people, but are motivated with an exceptional level of personal drive, and learn to take on habits and traits that are extraordinary in order to achieve their goals. The clarity of what has to be achieved to win gets them out of the comfort zone, determined to do whatever was necessary to make it happen.

These characteristics are the key to their power and ability to conquer fears, insecurities, physical and mental barriers, and bounce back in the face of adversity when things don’t go their way.

As I watched their triumphs and defeats unfold, it was clear that the traits that make an Olympian outstanding are the same ones that define today’s most successful entrepreneurs. For example, you must be passionate about what you are trying to achieve, focus intently and follow your gut instincts, listen to your inner voice and put in the hard work that you know it will take to reach your goal.

So whilst our GB Ladies didn’t quite hit the heights at Pyeongchang, they certainly had the traits to take into your startup business, and pushed themselves to their limits in high-pressure competitive situations. The performances in PyeongChang reveal typical examples of the traits and attributes of entrepreneurs:

Vision: Athletes have a clear vision of where they’re going, they are purposeful about it as a clear goal, and avoid distraction which saves time and energy. Athletes know they need to ‘push’ them when they want to quit. The key is clarity on seeking personal growth to achieve a personal best.

Mental toughness: Sports psychologists have identified four components of mental toughness – control, commitment, challenge and confidence. Mentally tough athletes have a high sense of self-belief and unshakable faith that they can control their own destiny and can remain relatively unaffected by adversity.

Lack of fear: The psychology of overcoming fear is particularly relevant to athletes in high-risk sports on ice, and for a startup, you have to push yourself to be able to progress, you have to walk that fine line of using it as a motivator and not letting it inhibit you.

Bouncing back: There is no better example of this than Elise Christie, from her disappointments at Sochi in 2014 to her potentially games ending crash in the 1500m at PyeongChang, no one expected her to take to the start line for the 1000m, but take to the line she did. Sadly her games ended in yellow card, but how did she even make it back?

Block out negativity: Olympians run through their events mentally before they even do them – this gets them in the ‘zone’ and gives them an edge; visualise your startup business success, and get this energy. Olympians lose more than they win, but it’s their strong, determined spirit that keeps them moving forward when others would quit. This makes them winners with positive mind sets.

When you lead a startup dealing with the Monday to Friday stops-and-starts, having the blue sky thinking of what you want to achieve and equally the washing the pots of some low level tasks, it can sometimes overwhelm you. However, it’s the people who persevere with determination and tenacity to keep going and vision that will succeed.

Entrepreneurs, like Olympians, must choose to meet each day with the knowledge that their path holds both obstacles and opportunity. The competition will be tough and the conditions unpredictable and unforgiving, but that’s what it takes to turn a vision into a reality. So dig deep and unleash what drives you – not for money or fame, but for the pure joy of doing what you do best, and doing it to a new standard – a personal best.

Because it’s there

I was a teenager staying at my grandmother’s house in North Wales when I came across an epic story of mountaineering: The Fight for Everest, the account of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine’s 1924 expedition, when they disappeared neat the summit, giving rise to folklore as to whether they had reached the top of the world.

I was staying with her in the summer before I went to university, doing odd jobs, perched up ladders with a paint brush in return for an endless supply of home made pies and scones. We went to the local market, and as with a habit of a lifetime, I made a beeline for the second-hand bookstall. Several were in Welsh, whose titles I didn’t understand so ignored, but I managed to scramble four books about exploration, adventure and mountaineering – and my affinity with Amundsen, Scott, Mawson, Nansen, Hilary, Herzog, Compagnoni & Lacedelli, Shackleton and Mallory began.

I started to read The Fight for Everest first. I already knew some of the details, but its black-and-white photographs and its fold-out maps captured my imagination. As I read, I was carried away to the Himalayas. The images rushed over me, I could see the distant white peaks, snow storms approaching and the climbers reaching up the ice-walls on the North Col, scaling with ropes, the oxygen masks on their backs making them look like scuba divers.

Some 30 years on, I have still marked the passage of the book that etched an enduring memory, the description by Noel Odell, the expedition geologist, of his last sighting of Mallory and Irvine, some 800 vertical feet from the summit on June 9, 1924:

There was a sudden clearing of the atmosphere above me, and I saw the whole summit ridge and final peak of Everest unveiled. I noticed far away on a snow slope leading up to what seemed to me to be the last step but one from the base of the final pyramid, a tiny object moving and approaching the rock step. A second object followed, and then the first climbed to the top of the step. As I stood intently watching this dramatic appearance, the scene became enveloped in cloud

Over and over I read that passage, and I wanted nothing more than to be one of those two tiny dots, fighting for survival in the thin, icy air, unfazed by adversity. That was it. I lived intensely with and through these explorers, spending evenings with them in their tents, thawing pemmican hoosh.

No evidence, apart from this testimony, has been found that they climbed higher than the First Step (one of three final physical stages to the summit) as their spent oxygen cylinders were found shortly below the First Step, and Irvine’s ice axe was found nearby in 1933. They never returned to their camp and died high on Everest.

On 1 May 1999, a frozen body was found at 26,760 ft. on the north face of the mountain. Name tags on the body’s clothing bore the name of G. Leigh Mallory. All the clothing labels showed the same. No subsequent searches have found either Irvine or a Kodak camera, known to be in their possession, which could hold the answer as to whether they were on the top of the world 30 years before Hilary and Tenzing.

Mallory carried a photograph of his wife, which he was going to leave at the summit. When his body was discovered, the photograph was missing and it could have been left at the summit. Whether it will ever be proven that he reached the top or not, he certainly had climbed to an altitude of at least 28,000 feet in 1924 with clothing and equipment far inferior to what is available today, a remarkable feat.

Mallory took part in the first three British expeditions to Everest in the early 1920s, joining the 1924 Everest expedition believing that at 37, it would be his third and last opportunity to climb the mountain. Mallory’s grandson, also named George Mallory, reached the summit of Everest in 1995. He left a picture of his grandparents at the summit citing unfinished business. Latterly Reinhold Messner has been celebrated as the greatest climber in history, making the first solo ascent of Everest without oxygen and the first climber to ascend all fourteen world peaks over 26,000 ft. but the fate of George Mallory makes him the most revered climber for me.

The grand prize of mountain climbing is Everest, for obvious reasons. It’s not the most difficult or dangerous mountain, but it invites the adventurous to stand at the peak of the world, the spot closest the sun, moon, and stars, the ultimate junction of earth and sky, of horizon and zenith. It allows the brave to revel above the clouds, look upwards into the void and leave the earth behind. This is what drives people to risk physical exhaustion, dehydration, even death.

Only a fraction of people have ever exalted in that experience and lived to say: I climbed Mount Everest. But for Mallory, this was not recreation or physical challenge, that was not what he sought – he pursued the pure adventure of climbing. It was Mallory with the famous aphorism that, to this day, best summarises the avid climber’s pursuit, quoted as having replied to the question Why do you want to climb Mount Everest? with the retort Because it’s there, which has been called ‘the most famous three words in mountaineering’.

It turns out that Mallory actually did answer his own question more fully, and perhaps even more beautifully, a year prior to his famous quip: The first question which you will ask and which I must try to answer is this, ‘What is the use of climbing Mount Everest?’ and my answer must at once be, ‘It is no use’…. if you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. I look back on tremendous efforts & exhaustion & dismal looking out of a tent door on to a dismal world of snow and vanishing hopes.

I’ve kept Mallory’s retort in my head for many years, as did President Kennedy, who quoted Mallory in his speech announcing the NASA programme in 1962, and his own words with the same sentiment of ambition: We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

Mallory is one of our last great explorers and one of the greatest truly ambitious men. While today climbing Everest is almost commonplace, back then it was possibly the most daunting physical challenge available. The highest peak that had been ascended was Montblanc, at 15,000 feet, which Mallory had climbed. Remember this was the 1920s, Mallory had to hike through miles of Nepalese jungle without a map – this was all uncharted. He hadn’t even seen Everest until he arrived there, and yet from the second he heard the idea he never hesitated. He is so revered that the ice-wall on the North Col which must be climbed for all who summit Everest via the North Route is named after him, the Mallory Step.

Mallory epitomises unwavering ambition and the attitude to succeed. He has focus and clarity on his goals, and also a tenacious will-to-win, qualities needed to be an entrepreneur. Starting and running a business is a lot like climbing a mountain for the first time, look at the similarities:

  • Inner drive Entrepreneurs are driven to succeed and grow. They see the bigger picture, set massive goals and stay committed to achieving them regardless of challenges that arise. Mallory had this in abundance.
  • Strong self-belief Entrepreneurs often have a strong and assertive personality, focused and determined to achieve their goals and believe completely in their ability to achieve them. Mallory has the same inner confidence.
  • Search for innovation Mallory had a passionate desire to be the first man on Everest, just as entrepreneurs look to bring new ideas to market. They are pioneers too, in their aspirations and approach to the task and opportunity before them.
  • Competitive by nature Successful entrepreneurs thrive on competition. The only way to reach their goals and live up to their self-imposed high standards is to be the best they can be. Mallory’s wasn’t competitive with other climbers – but with himself and the mountain before him.
  • Highly motivated and energised Mallory was always on the go, full of energy and highly motivated. Entrepreneurs have a similar high work ethic, restless and always trying to get to where they want to get.
  • Accepting of obstacles Entrepreneurs are on the front line and hear the words it’s never been done, it can’t be done as opportunity. They readjust their path, obstacles are an expected part of the journey. Everest was both a physical and mental obstacle in Mallory’s journey.

If you’re anything like me, you need to remind yourselves every now and then why you’re working so hard every day. Sometimes if you haven’t looked up from the grindstone for sometime, your vision can get cloudy. Mallory’s story and attitude reminds me that there’s a purpose and a reason for your dedication, discipline and hard work.

Likewise, my mantra is that if you don’t have an appetite for turning up everyday, getting some disruptive thinking going into new opportunities and giving a ‘personal best’, then you’ll just get lost in life’s busy shuffle and something must be wrong with your internal compass.

I don’t want to live my business life with any regret. At times it is not easy, and has all sorts of unexpected twists, but Mallory reminds me – as he did Kennedy – not just ‘do things’ but to do them with a passion and a purpose bigger than ‘just turning up’. Do them because it matters. Not just to cross it off a list but for the purpose of a creating a story to tell that what you’ve done matters, and that it makes a difference.

As Mallory said in one of his final interviews, when trying to explain why he’s climbing Everest, I have dreamt since I was a boy of standing atop this mountain, and it’s worth it to risk your life to make a dream come true. Business life isn’t as risky to life and limb, but there is no finishing line, just keep reaching out and pushing yourself, and ask yourself why do I want this? – and you have the answer from Mallory, because it’s there. Mallory provides a new perspective on our own aspirations and inspires us to strive for our own Everest, because it’s there.