Lessons for startups from the rugby world cup: set high expectations for yourself, like Siya Kolisi

England’s World Cup final defeat against South Africa made for a very flat Saturday. Expectations were high, but we were so far off winning the game. Yet if we fans feel washed out, imagine what the players feel! They are going to remember that game for the rest of their lives, but hopefully use it as a pivotal learning moment to ensure they come back as better players.

Head coach Eddie Jones has had a blinding tournament, but on this occasion South Africa coach Rassie Erasmus was awesome. Wherever England attacked, the Springboks had defence. They were very disciplined. They were tactically spot on. They played in the right areas.

They had the balance of their kicking game and when it was on to run the ball and throw the ball wide – they chose the right time and made good decisions. South Africa were fantastic in the set-piece, scrums and line-outs, and the breakdown. Faf de Klerk ran the game from scrum-half.

Only eight men have ever experienced what it is to lead their team to receive the William Webb Ellis trophy – less than the twelve men who have stood on the moon. Siya Kolisi is the eighth after he led South Africa to Saturday’s 32-12 victory. Kolisi follows fellow countryman Francois Pienaar and John Smit, David Kirk and Richie McCaw (New Zealand), Nick Farr-Jones and John Eales (Australia), and of course, Martin Johnson (England).

South Africa’s first world cup victory under Francois Pienaar in 1995 saw Nelson Mandela alongside him in his own green number six jersey, in what became an iconic sporting image. When Smit’s team beat England in the 2007 final, the 16-year-old Kolisi was watching it in a township tavern, because there was no television at home.

That Kolisi has made it this far is a story of stoicism and self-belief, setting high expectations for himself to change his circumstances. Born to teenage parents in the poor township of Zwide on the Eastern Cape, he was brought up by his grandmother. Bed was a pile of cushions on the living-room floor. Rugby was on dirt fields. When he went to his first provincial trials he played in boxer shorts, because he had no other kit.

Rugby is in his family, his father Fezakel was a centre, his grandfather a player of pace too. Kolisi began playing rugby at school aged seven, a small but mobile flanker, good with the ball in hand, learning to be smarter than the stronger kids around him. When a growth spurt kicked in and he got bigger, there was power to go with the finesse.

He signed up for his local club in the township, African Bombers. Five years later his talent was spotted by Andrew Hayidakis, a coach at one of South Africa’s most prestigious rugby schools, Grey High, and offered a bursary. He didn’t speak a word of English when he first arrived, but did a language exchange with one of his classmates, Nicholas Holton teaching him English and Kolisi teaching Holton Xhosa. The two are still firm friends – Kolisi’s son is named after him and Holton was best man at his wedding.

Kolisi progressed through the rugby ranks to Western Province and Super Rugby side the Stormers, before making his international debut against Scotland in 2013. He was named vice-captain for the Springboks in 2017 and in 2018, he became the Springboks’ first black captain in its 126-year history.

Saturday was his fiftieth cap, his twentieth as captain. But his impact is far greater than simply what he does on the pitch because of all that has come before. For all the iconography of 1995, the wider effect of the Pienaar-Mandela relationship quickly faded. When the Springboks triumphed in Johannesburg twenty-four years ago there was just one black player, Chester Williams, in the starting team. By the time of their second World Cup under John Smit in 2007, there were still only two.

In the starting XV that beat England, there were six black players: wingers Cheslin Kolbe and Makazole Mapimpi, centre Lukhanyo Am, prop Tendai Mtawarira, hooker Bongi Mbonambi, and Kolisi. Of Rassie Erasmus’s squad of thirty one, eleven are black.

Kolisi stands as a critical link between the past and future. He was born on 16 June 1991, one day before the repeal of the brutal apartheid laws that enforced discrimination against black people in every aspect of their lives. Separate land. Separate public transport. Separate schools.

And so Kolisi carries that weight on his shoulders. Dreams and messy pasts, old heroes and deep-rooted struggles. Only a game, but so much more too. Ghosts all around him, a new future ahead. Strength through unity was the motto the Springboks have adopted this tournament, both as a squad and as a varied group of South Africans.

Kolisi is acutely aware of how much his life has changed, saying: My first goal was to get a meal at the end of the day. Now I set much higher goals. I want to be one of the best players in the Springbok team and one of the best players in the world.

Kolisi not only makes you wish more sportsmen used their profile for greater things but also forces you to question your own life and achievements. How can you better yourself?  To achieve like Siya Kolisi, you need to raise the bar – not just a little, but a lot. You need to raise the bar on the time and effort you put in. You need to raise the bar on your goals. And most importantly, you need to raise the bar on what you expect from yourself.

The irony is, you’re probably trying too hard currently, making things way too complicated and yet setting your sights way too low. If you want big things out of life, as Kolisi has shown, you have to set your sights high, set big goals, and keep it simple. Here are six steps to accomplishing that.

1. Explore your not-enough story Low expectations stem from the inner belief that we are not able to go higher. When we live in this place, we are never truly living in the moment of our lives, we’re living in regret from what we are not, and fear that we may never be.

You can start chipping away at this false belief by realising that this is not what it needs to be. Who said you’re not able to achieve this? Whose story is this?

2. Have faith in yourself Having reframed your own starting point, you have to believe that what you’re doing is for a reason. Once you find that single purpose, it will give you faith in your ability to make the right choices and set your expectations.

Don’t sit there wondering ‘What if?’ or watching other people, get out there and do your stuff, go to places where you’ll meet other enterprising people and exposed to new opportunities. That’s where you’ll find that one thing you’re uniquely cut out to do.

3. No more low expectations Studies show that parents who have high expectations for their children raise children who are more likely to succeed. The same can be said of yourself: if we have high expectations for ourselves, we are more likely to rise to them.

Most of us have low expectations of ourselves. Maybe you’ve lowered yours to avoid disappointment or a sense of failure when you don’t meet your goals. Perhaps you feel you aren’t worthy of big aspirations, so you shrink them to a size you believe you deserve. Look back at Kolisi’s story, do you think he set low hurdles for himself?

4. Focus on being the best With momentum on your expectations, you need to focus on being better than anyone else. You may need to study and work at it for a few years, but stick with it, you’ll improve your craft, building better products, and delivering better service. If you’re smart and savvy, you’ll rise above the pack and beat the competition. Set a high success bar and expect to reach it. If you don’t, no one else will, and you’ll continue to achieve only mediocre results.

5. Rise to your own expectations, every time When you set expectations for yourself, you will rise to them, but ‘note to self’ helps, reminding yourself and reflecting on success to date, and work to be done. Because you believe in yourself, you’ll be strong. You’ll face your challenges that inevitably befall any great pursuit, but you’ll persevere. And if you do great work, you’ll reap the rewards.

6. Practise self-compassion and remember to rest Self-care can work wonders and motivating yourself with kindness rather than criticism will change your mindset. Learn from mistakes and make changes to move forward. It’s also important to factor in time to relax and recharge. Indeed, you may get more done, a rested body and mind will help you when approaching the next step.

So, what about you? What expectations will you have for yourself going forward? What do you think Kolisi said to himself, back when he was just starting out in his rugby career?

What you expect of yourself determines what you do with yourself. The only person that determines what you do with your life is you; you can make it count and you can make a difference. From experience, I can say that it takes time. However, in the long run when you look back at where you are right now things will be different. And they will be shaped by what you expect of yourself today.

As Leonardo da Vinci said Art is never finished, only abandoned. I know from experience the difficulty of saying, I need to let it go now, it’s good enough! The perfectionist in me shouts or whispers It can be a little bit better. However, keep setting expectations of yourself, and see where the journey takes you.

Our expectations for ourselves directly impact our future performance. I think that’s what made Siya Kolisi a world champion. He looked up to the horizon, then looked a little bit further, set his expectations, and put his heart and soul into getting there. He’s made it, but I expect there is more to come from him.

Lessons for startups from the rugby world cup: the resilience of Maro Itoje

Not since winning the 2003 World Cup has English rugby enjoyed a more stunning moment. Their 19-7 semi-final victory on Saturday left the All Blacks’ players strewn on the pitch, dreams of becoming the first team to win three consecutive Webb Ellis Cups dashed.

As well as inflicting New Zealand’s first defeat in 19 World Cup matches going back to 2007, this was the best England performance I’ve witnessed. The All Blacks had dominated the tournament, but could not cope with England’s relentless power, defensive strength and tactical acumen, after Manu Tuilagi’s second-minute try set the tone.

England’s forwards played the collective game of their lives – Maro Itoje, Tom Curry and Sam Underhill delivered stunning performances when it mattered most. George Ford kicked four vital penalties and when the inevitable All Black fight back came, England’s tackling, particularly from Underhill, was phenomenal.

From the moment England formed their deliberate V-shaped arrowhead to greet the haka, there was an edge, and the opening minutes saw England’s statement of intent, with a try after just 98 seconds. A stunning attacking sequence ended with Tuilagi plunging over, Farrell’s conversion made it 7-0, and it was seven minutes before New Zealand could get their breath.

It was the team in white who dominated the first half, a 10-0 half-time blank noteworthy as the All Blacks’ first at a World Cup since 1991. Savea 57th-minute try, converted by Richie Mo’unga woke us all up. With just nine defeats in their last 105 matches, would the All Blacks come back? The answer was no. Despite two disallowed tries, two more Ford penalties propelled the English chariot sweetly into next Saturday’s final.

If England have ever produced a better eighty minutes then no-one dancing or screaming around our front room on Saturday morning, refreshed with a copious supply of beer and bacon butties, could remember it. The tension of being ahead from the second minute, the relentless tackles making you grab your own ribs and wince, it was simply a truly great game of rugby.

Maro Itoje had the game of his life, making twelve tackles, winning seven lineouts, and three turnovers. But that does not tell you the half of it. He was a one-man highlights reel. You kept catching glimpses of him, forcing his way through the maul to reach over and wrap his hands around the ball to stop Aaron Smith snapping it out, soaring into the air at the lineout to grab the ball from Sam Whitelock, charging into half a gap, bent double over a tackled man, rooting around with his hands till he pulled up the ball, like some frenzied prospector digging around for the gold nugget he had spotted in the river mud.

Itoje was named player of the match as England’s pack dominated their All Black counterparts. England won sixteen turnovers. No team has won more at this World Cup. Breakdown won, set-piece won, discipline won. England conceded just six penalties to the All Blacks’ eleven. They were faster and they were more precise. They kicked from hand better, and they tackled like their lives depended on it.

Around twenty minutes into the second half, the camera zoomed in on Itoje, getting his breath back at a lineout, chest was heaving, lungs gulping, but the eyes… well, the eyes were something else. They were wide open and staring, bearing an expression that simultaneously implied total aggression and total stillness. He did not blink. Itoje was in the zone of complete focus, the moment of concentration and clarity.

This was his greatest performance in an English shirt, in attack and defence, in open play and at the set piece, in its bravery, discipline, ingenuity and skill. To get a measure of his impact, look at his opposite numbers – Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick were a fraction of their imposing best. These are greats of the game, World Cup winners with 200 international caps between them. Itoje made them look like statues. To be the man, you’ve got to beat the man, Itoje said last week.

The menace and verve of New Zealand’s potent team was nullified. He gave a technical and tactical masterclass, his performance forged through continuous breakthroughs, small steps and iterations, each possible because he had his eyes and ears wide open in the moment, with the resilience and mindset to keep going.

Putting to one side his rugby skills, it was the resilience shown by Itoje to simply keep going that stood out for me. It is the virtue that enables entrepreneurs to move through their own battles and achieve success. If we have the virtue of resilience, then we can move forward, whatever the challenge.

Many misunderstand what’s at work in resilience. For me, it’s not about ‘bouncing back’, rather its about the ability to integrate harsh experiences into your thinking, learn and apply the lessons, and then be motivated to go again, expecting to go one better, as Thomas Edison said, I have not failed. I have just found ten thousand ways that won’t work.

Like Itoje, entrepreneurs consciously choose a life of challenge, yearning success whilst also inevitably encountering times marked by sheer graft, chaos and disappointment. Entrepreneurial endeavour is a series of higher highs and lower lows, in which the peaks and troughs are more vivid, but as Sir Edmund Hilary said, People do not decide to become extraordinary. They decide to accomplish extraordinary things, and he should know.

Ryan Holiday, in his book The Obstacle Is The Way, draws lessons from philosophy and history and says if you want to achieve anything in life, you have to do the work, be prepared for knockbacks – but most of all, be resilient. It’s a great book, inspiring us to be bolder and mentally able to handle the pressure of running a startup.

Here are some quotes from Holiday, which I think say a lot about building your resilient mindset, and could have been written about Itoje on Saturday.

No one is asking you to look at the world through rose-coloured glasses.

See the world for what it is. Not what you want it to be or what it should be. Hey, we’re back to being realistic – but it’s also about optimism, the mindset to expect the best outcome from every situation – and that’s resilience to make it happen. This gives entrepreneurs the capacity to pivot from a failing tactic, and implement actions to increase success.

Where the head goes, the body follows. Perception precedes action. Right action follows the right perspective. When something happens, you decide what it means. Is it the end? Or the time for a new start? Is it the worst thing that has ever happened to you? Or is it just a setback? You have the decision to choose how you perceive every situation in life.

No thank you, I can’t afford to panic. Some things make us emotional, but you have to keep your emotions in check and balanced. In every situation, no matter how bad it is, keep calm and try to find a solution. Sometimes the best solution is walking away. Entrepreneurs find it hard to say no, but that can be the best option.

If you want momentum, you’ll have to create it yourself, right now, by getting up and getting started. If you want anything from life, you have to start moving towards it. Only action will bring you closer. Start now, not tomorrow. Maintain active optimism, observing how others were successful in similar situations, and believing you can do the same. It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.

It’s okay to be discouraged. It’s not okay to quit. Entrepreneurial life is competitive. When you think life is hard know that it’s supposed to be hard. If you get discouraged, try another angle until you succeed. Every attempt brings you one step closer. Don’t have a victim’s mindset, have courage to take decisive action. Great entrepreneurs become tenaciously defiant when told they cannot succeed. Then they get it done.

We must be willing to roll the dice and lose. Prepare, at the end of the day, for none of it to work. We get disappointed too quickly. The main cause? We often expect things will turn out fine, we have too high expectations. No one can guarantee your success so why not expect to lose? You try with all your effort, it doesn’t work out, you accept it, and move on.

The path of least resistance is a terrible teacher. Don’t shy away from difficulty. Don’t do things just because they’re easy. How do you expect to grow? Nurture yourself: gain strength from the unrealistic achievements of others. We can’t choose what happens to us, but we decide how to respond. Successful, resilient entrepreneurs don’t just accept what happens to them. It’s all fuel that you can use to move forward. It defines you.

Itoje will tell you, you get tackled, you’re hurt, you’re down and the play is now twenty-five metres away. Resilience means getting right back in the game, remaining optimistic in the face of adversity. Resilience is accepting your new reality, but being able to take a step forward when others sit there watching.

Itoje is the essence of persistence, resilience and mental toughness, so take a leaf out of his book. Give it everything, every day, be the last man standing when something needs to be done. Never be outworked, remember that true failure only comes when you give up. Hold yourself responsible for a higher standard than anybody else expects of you. Never excuse yourself. Never pity yourself. Be a hard master to yourself. The human capacity for burden is like bamboo, far more flexible than you’d ever believe at first glance.

England played an absolutely incredible game, the stamina, the resilience, they just never let up. Never have I seen an All Blacks team defeated quite like this, they were outplayed, outsmarted, outmuscled. Perhaps it’s time to accept that nothing lasts forever, no one can outrun the sands of time. With the iconic Kieran Read stepping down from All Blacks duty next month, and others including Sonny Bill Williams, Aaron Smith, Joe Moody and Sam Whitelock unlikely to feature in the next World Cup in France 2023, maybe this current pantheon of All Blacks greats has reached the end of the road.

Greatness is a hard thing to sustain in any walk of life, but for nearly a decade this All Blacks team has done that. Success can take the edge off soaring ambition, the passing of time perhaps dampens hunger and with it the mindset for repeated challenge. New Zealand have been the epitome of resilience, but now a brighter, younger team, one bristling with unwavering belief, and players like Itoje showing their own immense resilience, has landed a killer blow when it matterred most. Make sure you take a lesson from Itoje for your own entrepreneurial endeavours.