Lessons in entrepreneurship from grandmaster Magnus Carlsen

The history of chess is a history of metaphors and moral lessons. Underlying a game of chess is an abstract structure of rules and relative powers, which can be quite mind-boggling. The game emerged in C5th India, but it wasn’t until the C19th, when the set was standardised into the Staunton version we play today.

To follow a professional game is to get lost in a swamp of algebraic options and notations. When the 13-year-old Bobby Fischer sacrificed his queen against Donald Byrne in the so-called ‘game of the century’ in 1956, it was considered one of the finest moves in chess history – a greatness not quite communicated by Be6

Chess is an endless pursuit, a game of longevity with logical consequences and sly entrapment. After sacrificing his queen, another 24 moves later, Fischer won – a result, he’d worked out, that was inevitable if he let his queen go. It was sacrifice that was also attack, violence that was also composure.

When a chess player looks at the board, he does not see a static mosaic, but a magnetic field of forces, charged with energy, potential and intrigue. A game of chess opens in a state of equilibrium, and if the optimal move is made with each play, a draw is all but assured. At the elite, grandmaster level, more than half of contests are drawn.

Sven Magnus Øen Carlsen is a Norwegian chess grandmaster and the current World Chess Champion. His peak Elo rating of 2882, achieved in 2014, is the highest in history. Carlsen became World Champion in 2013, retained his title the following year, and won both the World Rapid Championship and World Blitz Championship thus becoming the first player to simultaneously hold all three titles.

Magnus tries to put the accent on play, less on preparation, and is seen as combining the talents of two of the all time greats, Karpov and Fischer. He’s known for getting his positions then holding on with a bulldog bite. Exhausting for opponents, one of his most feared qualities is his ‘nettlesomeness’ – his creative moves pressurise opponents into mistakes. Carlsen’s endgame prowess has been described as among the greatest in history.

The World Chess Championship of 2018 began with a series of twelve games played under classical time controls, the traditional slow pace of play. Carlsen failed to win a single one of his contests against the challenger, American Fabiano Caruana, but fortunately for the Norwegian, Caruana never reached a checkmate or extracted a resignation either.

With each of the dozen classical games ending in a draw, the match moved to a series of faster-paced tiebreakers, starting with a series of four ‘rapid’ games, in which players are allotted less than one-quarter the thinking time of the classical format. Carlsen, the stronger competitor in speedier formats, won the first three games to clinch the tiebreaker and retain his title.

To the casual observer, three weeks of drawn games may sound excruciatingly boring, but like a football match with smart, impregnable defences, or a baseball World Series studded with scoreless pitching duels, the chess title match featured two equally matched grandmasters competing at an extremely high level.

In chess, every piece serves a purpose. You start the game with a set of pieces, from king to pawns, each with their own ability and position. Novice players push forward immediately with their back row, trying to get their most valuable pieces into win positions early. Experienced players, however, know that it is the pattern of all their pieces working in concert that creates reliable success.

Master chess players see the unfolding patterns of the board over time, thinking not in terms of one piece or one move, but in terms of the entire board over dozens of moves. This ability to analyse actions and their outcomes, combined with skilled pattern recognition, is what defines strategy.

The objective is to play the board, not just your plan. When playing chess your opponent is trying to predict and undermine you, applying their own strategy to capture more pieces, so, what do you do? One crucial skill is the importance of taking time for reflection. It’s in reflection that the brain has time to learn, to process new information, to recognise patterns, and recall previous successful moves.

I see many similarities between chess and running a startup business from the strategy, thinking and tactics behind the game. Let’s look at the lessons and learnings we can take from Carlsen and his recent Word Championship success.

The first phase in a chess game: the opening As Carlsen shows, the purpose of the opening isn’t just to get immediately ahead, rather it’s to set the stage for the type of middle game you want. This can also mean manoeuvring for the type of game your opponent doesn’t want. The openings are the only phase in which there is the possibility of unique application, you can find something that no one else has found. Be first, and be brave is the lesson for a startup, but equally don’t rush.

The second phase: the middle game What sort of middle game is our opening going to lead to? Is it one we are prepared for or have our opponents out foxed us and we’re playing catch-up? We must also play the middle game with an eye on the endgame. In a startup it’s important to have a strategy, tactics and a game plan thinking in period of three months, with objectives and key milestones.

Dream a little, don’t settle automatically for routine solutions The paradox of chess is that there is a routine set down by mathematics to make a strong move based on its objective merits. But recall Carlsen’s approach is a combination of freedom and discipline, sober evaluation and calculation mixed with outlandish ideas.

In a startup, you won’t find new ways of solving problems unless you look for them and experiment and have the nerve to try them when you find them, but ensure flair doesn’t mean or you spend your life making beautiful blunders.

The future is a result of the decisions you make in the present The strategist starts with a vision of the future and works backwards to the present. Carlsen makes the best moves because they are based on what he wants the board to look like ten or twenty moves ahead. This doesn’t require the calculation of countless twenty-move variations, but an evaluation where his fortunes lie in the position and establishes objectives. Having a vision for your startup is just as important.

Intuition & analysis Even the most honed intuition can’t entirely do without analysis. Intuition is where it all comes together – our experience, knowledge and judgement – or even hunches. But it doesn’t matter how far ahead you see if you don’t understand what you are looking at before you, so combine the two. No matter how much practice you have and how much you trust your gut instincts, analysis is essential.

Attack An attack doesn’t have to be all or nothing, or lightning quick. Sustained pressure can be very effective in chess, and creating long-term weaknesses in our opponent’s position can lead to a win in the long run. One of the qualities of a Carlsen is his ability to get the maximum out of a position without overstepping and trying to achieve more than what is possible.

In chess, the defender has to race around to cover the threats, but against constant pressure the job soon becomes impossible. Moving to cover one breach creates another until something cracks and the attack breaks through.

In chess we have the ‘principle of two weaknesses’. It’s rare to be able to win a game with only a single point of attack. Instead of becoming fixated on one spot, we must exploit our pressure to provoke more weak spots. So a large part of using the initiative is mobility, flexibility and diversion. In business, it’s a combination of product, service and price that creates a winning position.

Initiative Once you have the initiative you must exploit it. Carlsen reminds us that the player with the advantage is obliged to attack or his advantage will be lost. In business, a lead in initiative can be converted into a sustainable position. Being a step ahead means we can keep our competition off balance, shifting and moving in order to provoke weaknesses.

In business, going on the front-foot requires perfect timing as well as nerve. The window of opportunity is often very small, as with most dynamic situations. No neon sign appears to say that there is a big opportunity right around the corner, so balance opportunity with rationale – back to the combination of freedom and discipline in your game plan.

When you are winning, don’t get complacent Winning creates the illusion that everything is fine, success is seldom analysed as closely as failure and we are always quick to attribute our victories to superiority, rather than circumstance. When things are going well it is even more important to question. Over-confidence leads to mistakes, a feeling that anything is good enough. Our egos want to believe that we won brilliantly against tough competition, not that we were lucky and ‘right time, right place’, but typically, however, the winner is just the player who made the next-to-last mistake.

Carlsen shows that if we’re going to get the most out of our talent we have to be prepared to have a game plan, practice, think on the spot, analyse ourselves critically and improve our weakest points. The easiest thing is to rely on talent and focus only on what we do well. It’s true that you want to play to your strengths, but if there is too much of an imbalance growth is limited. In business, the fastest way to improve overall is to work on your total game, and all the constituent parts.

Chess is a mental game, that requires vision, tenacity, thoughtfulness, and multiple tactics. From this we can take the thought that in a startup we can look for ways to experiment and to push the boundaries of our capacity in different areas, it really is a combination of disruptive and disciplined approaches, and agile thinking that will bring success.

George Mallory’s entrepreneurial mindset: because it’s there

Research into the motivational drivers of entrepreneurs has highlighted that far from being the opportunity to earn financial gains, it is the extra-rational motivations, the psychological rewards, that provide the stimuli for relentless drive, sacrifice and determination:

  • the thrill of competition
  • the desire for adventure
  • the joy of creation
  • the satisfaction of team building
  • the desire to achieve meaning in life

Ask any entrepreneur how much blood, sweat and tears they’ve put into their startup, and you’d get an imprecise answer at best. They are more driven by success, more likely to take course of action that is uncertain, and to do something unproven. It’s because the challenge exists, it’s because it’s there.

Those three words, Because It’s There. This was the driver of George Mallory, possibly the first man to reach the summit of Everest. The Fight for Everest is the account of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine’s 1924 expedition, when they disappeared near the summit, giving rise to folklore as to whether they were the first men to have reached the top of the world, some 30 years ahead of Edmund Hilary.

The book’s black-and-white photographs and fold-out maps capture the imagination and carry you away to the Himalayas. You can see the distant white peaks, snow storms approaching and the climbers reaching up the ice-walls on the North Col, scaling with ropes. You can imagine the physical and mental challenge.

I have 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, 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.

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.

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 to the 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.

Mallory is one of our last great explorers and one of the greatest truly ambitious men, exhibiting all the traits of an entrepreneur. 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.

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. 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 to leave at the summit. When his body was discovered, the photograph was missing. Whether it will 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.

President Kennedy quoted Mallory in his speech announcing the NASA programme in 1962, 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 epitomises the same unwavering entrepreneurial ambition and attitude to succeed – focus and clarity on his goals, a tenacious will-to-win. Starting and running a small business is a lot like climbing a mountain for the first time, look at the similarities:

  • Inner drive Entrepreneurs are driven to succeed, 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 have a strong and assertive personality, focused and determined to achieve their goals and believe in their ability to achieve them. Mallory had this confidence.
  • Search for innovation Mallory had a passionate desire to be the first man on Everest, just as entrepreneurs look to bring new ideas first to market. Both are pioneers in their aspirations and approach to the risk and opportunity before them.
  • Competitive Successful entrepreneurs thrive on competition. The only way to reach their goals 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 energised Mallory was always on the go, full of energy and highly motivated. Entrepreneurs have a similar high energy, 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.

Sometimes you need to remind yourselves as to why you’re working so hard every day. 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.

Don’t get lost in life’s busy shuffle. Mallory reminds me not to 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 dreamed 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?

Because It’s There, was his answer.

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. Mallory provides a new perspective on our own aspirations and inspires us to strive for our own Everest. Because it’s there.

Be resilient: avoid the path of least resistance

The path to entrepreneurial success is forged via breakthroughs, small steps and iterations, each possible because you have your eyes and ears wide open and you’re able to reflect and adjust time after time, with the resilient mindset to keep going.

Resilience is the virtue that enables entrepreneurs to move through hardship and achieve success. No one escapes heartache, uncertainty and disappointment, yet from these setbacks comes wisdom, if we have the virtue of resilience.

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 entrepreneurial thinking, learn and apply the lessons, and then be motivated to go again, and expecting to go one better.

Entrepreneurs choose this life of challenge and hardship, gambling for achievement, seeking success with joy and humour, but also inevitably encountering times marked by confusion, chaos and disappointment. This is true of everyone’s lives, of course, but the entrepreneur consciously chooses a life in which they are likely to have higher highs and lower lows, in which the peaks and troughs are more vivid than if safer choices made.

Entrepreneurs jump on the roller coaster ride where the tracks haven’t yet been fully built. They’d have it no other way, happy with the wind in their faces and going round blind corners and crazy inclines. A good part of it is fighting the urge to revert back to their comfort zone, and fall back into old habits.

Please make yourself uncomfortable. Becoming a successful entrepreneur is never a straight line. There are lots of ups and downs and zigzags along the way. As it turns out, how you emotionally handle the downs is key. Resilience means not giving up, and being energised by what you have learned, experiencing multiple setbacks along the way, but persevering. As Thomas Edison said, I have not failed. I have just found ten thousand ways that won’t work.

It is not all bad, but it is not all good, it is not all ugly, but it is not all beautiful, it is life, life, life – the only thing that matters, a quote from Thomas Wolfe, which summarises the entrepreneur’s attitude. So stop trying to be realistic, and be resilient.

And that enables you to fight back. It can’t be done. What? You want to build an airplane? You’re crazy. You’ll never make it. Everyone fails and so will you. 1,000 songs in your pocket? You must be kidding, right? An electrical car with a range of 300 miles? You want to be an artist? It’s safer to get a job.

You don’t need guts to get a normal job, and do the usual stuff. Most people are realistic. It’s not realistic to be the first one to build an airplane. It’s not realistic to build an electric car.

But what’s the fun of living a life when you know the outcome already and it’s steady away? Ok, if you never try, you never have to deal with the pain and hurt of failure I’ll give you that. But most of that is self-inflicted. But is that a reason to not do something? Life is also not a contest of ‘my problems are worse than yours’. If it’s attention that you want, get a dog.

The truth is this: you’re trying to be realistic, and I’m telling you stop thinking that way. Think outside the box. Think of flying cars. Unconventional being. Do extraordinary things. People do not decide to become extraordinary. They decide to accomplish extraordinary things said Sir Edmund Hillary, and he should know.

Being resilient means your life doesn’t have to play out like a video on demand that is looping, you’ve seen a dozen times. Is it still worth it to sit through it? Yeah, sure. But it’s not extraordinary. You know the plot, you know the dialogue and you know the we-all-live-happy-ever-after. The End.

So rather than being realistic, think Go. Go. Go, and be resilient. 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.

The Obstacle Is The Way was the first book that I read back to back for some time. Yes, I read the book, thought it was so good that I flipped back to page one and started reading it again. This is a book that gets better every time you read it.

If everyone used the advice from the book, we would all be a lot bolder and mentally able to handle the pressure of running a startup. Here are some quotes from the book, which I think say a lot about building your resilient mindset.

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 practice 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 solution at times.

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.

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.

Ask not that events should happen as you will, but let your will be that events should happen as they do, and you shall have peace, Epictetus, a Greek Philosopher said. 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, and if you want to achieve anything, you have to work hard for it. 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.

Show relentless tenacity and determination. Remember, giving up is simply not an option. Learn that tenacity is self-sustaining when persevering actions are rewarded. Find tenacious role models, and garner the support of peers and friends. 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.

Decisiveness mitigates adversity, helps you rebound, take responsibility, and promotes growth. Building decisiveness requires eliminating fear, procrastination, and the urge to please everyone. Practice making decisions as a positive learning experience. Understand that any decision is usually better than no decision.

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. Surround yourself with high achievers. Avoid toxic people like the plague.

The world might call you a pessimist. Who cares? It’s far better to seem like a downer than to be blindsided or caught off guard. Just doubting yourself just doesn’t work, expecting things not to turn out and to lose is not good enough if you want to accomplish something remarkable. If you rehearse everything that can go wrong in your mind, you will not be caught by surprise when things actually go wrong. The Stoics called this Premeditatio malorum, the premeditation of evils. To be remarkable, you have to expect unreasonable things of yourself.

Don’t waste a second looking back at your expectations. Face forward, and face it with a smug little grin. 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. Everything happens for a reason. It’s all fuel that you can use to move forward. It defines you.

The great law of nature is that it never stops. There is no end. When you overcome one obstacle, another one waits in the shadows. Entrepreneurial life is a process of overcoming obstacles, one after the other. The obstacle becomes the way so you might as well enjoy it.

We all need a guiding light when adversity strikes. I’m pretty sure that if you reflect upon and apply one of the above quotes, you’ll top up your own entrepreneurial resilience. You don’t have to use every message from Ryan Holiday, just pick one quote, apply it, and see what happens. For me, it changed everything when I shared this with a number of my startup clients.

Resilience means rebounding back and 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 back to take a step forward. If you quit in the face of adversity, you’ll spend the rest of your life wondering about it. It’s never to late to be the person you could have been. The goal of resilience is to thrive in adversity.

I’m often struck by the ability of a single individual entrepreneur to change the world. Think Thomas Edison, Elon Musk and Anne Wojcicki, to name a few. They each started with no money and no technology, just their passion and perseverance.

Ultimately, three things make anything possible: People, technology and money. But money and technology alone, without the persistent and passionate human mind driving things forward, are useless.

If I had to name my superpower, it would be my persistence, resilience and mental toughness – maybe it’s my Northern grit – not giving up, even when everyone tells me it isn’t going to work. Had I given up in the face of the criticism or adversity, you wouldn’t be reading this blog post.

The only thing that I see that is distinctly different about me is I’m not afraid to be the last man standing when something needs to be done. I will not be outworked, period. You might have more talent than me, you might be smarter than me, you might be sexier than me, you might be all of those things – you got it on me in nine categories.

But if we get on the treadmill together, there’s two things: You’re getting off first, or I’m going to die. It’s really that simple. For me, my resilience keep me going. Remember that true failure only comes when you give up.

Think like Tim Peake, look to the future

UK astronaut Tim Peake is back on Earth after an historic six-month stay on the International Space Station. A Soyuz capsule carrying Peake and two other crew members touched down in Kazakhstan at 10.15am Saturday. He called the journey back the best ride I’ve been on – ever.

Screaming towards Earth at 25 times the speed of sound, friction on the spacecraft’s heat shield slowed its speed from 17,398 mph to 514 mph and raised the outside temperature to 1,600C. The rapid deceleration pushed the crew back into their seats with a force of around 5G – described as like going over Niagara Falls in a barrel, but the barrel is on fire.

That was landing, what was the launch experience? Like an unfriendly gorilla jumping up and down on your chest, and then throwing you off a cliff. The gorilla part is apparently that is what it feels like during lift off, which is about nine minutes. That is a long time to have a gorilla jumping on you! The ‘being thrown off a cliff’ is what it feels like when you reach zero gravity, which comes quite abruptly as you leave Earth’s orbit.

Peake is the first person from the UK to fly to space since Helen Sharman in 1991, and made the first spacewalk by a UK astronaut. During the 186-day mission, he made 3,000 orbits of Earth, covering a distance of 125m km.

Peake’s mission was named Principia after Sir Isaac Newton’s landmark work describing the laws of motion and gravity, and its main purpose was to contribute to scientific knowledge by conducting experiments in zero gravity. But Peake did much more than that as he kept in touch with the world on Twitter (814k followers), took part in video-linked Q&A sessions, and engaged in educational activities with schoolchildren – he read a bedtime story about astronauts on CBeebies as the Earth rolled beneath him.

He tweeted about coping with life in orbit, including photos and videos of sights that only a fraction of humanity will ever see with their own eyes. He called his parents, but got the wrong number, and on another occasion, phoned when they were out. When asked how he was doing on a spacewalk, as he clung to the outside of the station, he replied: Fine. Just hanging out.

Space exploration has always resonated with me. I was there, I saw Neil Armstrong take his giant leap for mankind from my parents’ living room perched on my grandfather’s knee. I can still recall the black & white images on the television screen. It’s a clear memory of a unique moment in history, and also a poignant and warm memory about my grandfather, who died later that year. I’ve been fascinated by the photography and science of the moon and space ever since.

I mourned Neil Armstrong’s passing in 2012, he was a modest, intelligent, well-balanced man, not at all moon-struck. Often when I’ve been outside on cold, crisp winter evenings walking the dog, I’ve look up at the moon and marvel at its contours, brightness and mystery. I suppose millions of people all over the world do the same thing. Armstrong was small step for man; a giant leap for moon-kind.

These days Armstrong would barely have landed on Earth before being inundated with offers from reality TV shows…I’m an astronaut, get me out of here. He hadn’t signed an autograph since 1994, having become dismayed at being treated as a celebrity. The announcement of his death felt like a coda to a chapter of my life. It was ironic that Armstrong died just as the US was celebrating the spectacular success of a new space venture with the landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars.

Armstrong did not like to be called a hero, his standard riposte to such accusations was to point out that it required the efforts of hundreds of thousands of backroom engineers, mathematicians and technicians to make space flight possible. He was right, at the height of its efforts, NASA was spending 4.4% of the American government’s entire budget, employing 400,000 workers.

Half a century after the event, with the deaths of many of its participants, the Apollo project is beginning to fade from living memory and pass into the history books. It was one of the mightiest achievements of the potent combination of big government and big science. Even now, all these years later, it’s still amazing what those people did when you think about the scale of achievement. Put a man on the moon.

Just as Peake is the first person from the UK to spacewalk, being first to achieve something makes you unique, a groundbreaker, it’s all about your passion and desire to leave your mark – quite literally a footprint – a legacy to inspire others. The edge is not in a gifted birth, a high IQ, or in talent, but rather the winner’s edge is all in the attitude. And if attitude is the criterion for success, the first quality needed is audacity and daring to dream.

Unsurprisingly, entrepreneurs can learn profound lessons from astronauts like Peake, with their tremendous courage, ability to perform while living on the edge, and knack for succeeding in doing things which truly sets them apart. Successful entrepreneurs possess many of these same character traits.

Launching new experiments in space and startup endeavours require skill to guide them into an unknown realm. Closer examination of space exploration provides strategies to help launch a new business into its first orbit. Here are a few thoughts.

Be willing to break the mould, take risks and learn Before he went into space, Peake didn’t know what the physical and psychological impact of living in a small, isolated, zero gravity environment would be. He embraced his mission, despite the uncertainty of how he would cope with spending six months more than 200 miles above the Earth. Throughout his 186 days in space, he participated in hundreds of studies and he will continue to be studied as his body readjusts to Earth.

As an entrepreneur, it is critical to be bold and have a willingness to take risks, do something that maybe no one has tried before, and demonstrate continued learning from that process.

Embrace working with a diverse team Upon his return, Peake acknowledged American Tim Kopra and Russian cosmonaut, Yuri Malenchenko, who shared his entire journey, as well as others from various countries who worked on the project. He emphasised the importance of teamwork, saying It’s incredibly important that we all work together to make what is seemingly impossible, possible.

It’s easy to default to working in isolation, particularly when navigating potential exciting new projects for personal achievement, forging ahead, but entrepreneurial leaders need to break down silos and collaborate to truly move the needle. 

Take a step back to help reveal the broader picture While Peake’s mission was primarily a stepping-stone for sending astronauts to Mars, he gained a new personal perspective on the Earth. From his view, Peake was able to see the Earth’s geography and climate in a new light, observing weather systems and topography in a way he could never experience from Earth.

Intentionally stepping out of the typical day-to-day can help you see situations from a new and often unexpected perspective. Entrepreneurs recognise and enjoy the learning that stems from these new perspectives. They are open to experiencing the bigger picture, so they can identify new barriers, challenges and opportunities relevant to their own context.

Communicate and share, regularly In advance of his journey, Peake committed to staying connected and sharing his experience, and he kept his promise. Even in a highly controlled environment, he consistently posted on Twitter, so others could share and learn from his experience.

Effective entrepreneurs intentionally and regularly communicate, sharing their vision and passion, and do so in ways that resonate with their audience. Today, email is insufficient, most of us receive so many emails every day it can become static noise. With the wide spread use of social media, it is critical to embrace new ways of sharing so key messages can rise above this noise.

Plan for failure and work backwards In some ways launching a new business parallels a space mission. There’s so much to think about and so much that can go wrong, and there’s always the chance of catastrophic failure. Peake had trained extensively, not just for the mission going right, but also for all the ways the mission could go wrong. He wasn’t out there alone, and he and his spacewalk partner had practiced, so he knew whatever happened, they could deal with it.

And of course, it did, on 15 January this year, when Tim Kopra got water in his helmet out on a spacewalk. Going blind on his spacewalk could have led any normal person into a panic, but Peake was able to maintain composure, and respond to the crisis. He had planned for so many years for things that could potentially go awry in space that he didn’t allow this to throw him.

As Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield said It’s not like astronauts are braver than other people; we’re just meticulously prepared. For entrepreneurs, balancing the options, good and bad, is an essential mindset. Adopting the lean startup thinking of ‘a startup is an experiment’, each outcome, including those unplanned, is valuable learning for continuous improvement.

Scale your business slowly: the real thrill doesn’t come from speed Peake described the experience of flying back from the moon like riding a meteor. He re-entered the atmosphere at breakneck speed. Some might think that the sheer speed of flight would be exhilarating, but Peake expressed that his thrill came from watching the beauty outside along the way and the delight in reaching a different perspective of the world.

Successful entrepreneurs aren’t solely focused on the speed at which they launch their business. They recognise that success comes with patience and hard work, and timing. Enjoy the process of building something great and delivering on a vision, don’t rush your business’s growth so that you risk compromising the quality of your offering, or the learning experience.

Critical traits for success: persistence and tenacity Peake’s story of sheer persistence, tenacity and of taking pleasure in the journey speaks to anyone who goes into a business for the sake of purpose. Tim’s description of the preparation for the launch, the excitement around the possibility of being in space and then his awe in being weightless is a great metaphor for building a business and realising a dream.

The second half of his journey, returning to earth, was equally exhilarating for him, as now he had experienced things that could inspire others to dare to dream. He could now teach others about confronting their fears, taking risks that culminate in the joy of doing things that are new and challenging.

Peake’s tenacity and persistence is reminiscent of many iconic entrepreneurs – Jobs, Bezos, Musk – are well-known for zeroing in on what’s important. Their combination of vision, conviction, and stubborn tenacity make them unstoppable visionaries.

Peake dared to dream and took risks. Life is queer with its twists and turns. Success is failure turned inside out, the silver tint of the clouds of doubt, and you never can tell how close you are. He is living his life as an exclamation rather than an explanation, dedicated to training and preparation, absorbing the set backs as gaining experience for handling the future challenges he knew he would have to overcome tomorrow.

Tomorrow…are you preparing yourself for tomorrow, or do you only want to follow in the footsteps of others, and never want to experience the greatness of personal victory? Think like Tim Peake, look to the future.

Winning mind-sets of Xavi & Bradley Wiggins

The weekend saw two remarkable sportsmen achieve significant success, on top of a career defined by continued success – Xavi Hernandez and Bradley Wiggins. What is it in their makeup that enables them to be relentless in the pursuit of challenge, to get up and go again when they’ve enjoyed success, never resting on their laurels, and be determined and hungry to win every time they turnout?

On Saturday, Xavi Hernandez lifted The Champions League trophy on his last Barcelona appearance, as the club completed a historic treble in Berlin. It was his last appearance for the club, and the result confirmed a staggering twenty-fifth trophy of Xavi’s career – 777 appearances for Barca since his debut in 1998.

The 35-year-old was handed the captain’s armband as he came on as a 78th minute substitute for Iniesta during Barca’s 3-1 victory over Juventus. His cameo performance was typically astute, appropriately economic and expansive in possession and intelligently positioned when he wasn’t. This was the fourth time Xavi has lifted the European Cup and victory offered a fitting tribute as he ended his career.

Born in the neighbouring city of Terrassa, Xavi joined Barca’s famous La Masia academy as an 11-year-old and made his debut for the first-team in August 1998.  Following an injury to Pep Guardiola in 1999, Xavi inherited the principle playmaking responsibilities and soon became the lifeblood of the Barca midfield.

On Sunday, Bradley Wiggins broke the one-hour distance record, considered one of the most prestigious and iconic records in cycling. Wiggins completed a distance of 54.5km (33.89 miles), smashing the record set in May by fellow Briton Alex Dowsett of 52.9km (32.9 miles). However, he did fall short of the 55.25km target he had set himself.

When he lowered himself onto his 3D-printed titanium handlebars, Wiggins simply focused on the black line ahead of him and the next 60 minutes. Sound simple! Wiggins, current World Champion and holding all the time-trial crowns – Olympic, World, British and now the Hour – knows his place amongst the pantheon of cycling legends is guaranteed.

Success proved again that versatility has been the bedrock of Wiggins’ greatness. With his metronomic pedalling style and cadence, no other rider has been capable both of taking multiple Olympic gold medals on track and road as well as conquering the Tour de France.

James Moore’s first unofficial hour record, set on a penny farthing in 1873, was 22.3km, which is incredible considering he spent 20 minutes of his attempt getting on the bike (I made that up!). The distance Wiggins covered in an hour is roughly the equivalent of cycling from Liverpool to Manchester. Except he didn’t get stuck in the M62 roadworks, or stop for a cup of tea at the services.

When Jens Voigt sparked the new set of records last year, he could barely stand at the end. Yesterday, Wiggins got off his bike and lifted it above his head, then got back on his bike to do a lap of honour. What an athlete. Whilst Xavi has retired, Wiggins’ swansong will be the 2016 Rio Olympics.

I have been intrigued with what drives and motivates human behaviour for many years, wanting to understand the concept of a ‘winning mind-set’. We have seen the likes of Roger Bannister, Jonny Wilkinson, Richie McCaw, Steve Redgrave and now Xavi and Wiggins, and many more amaze us with their passion and drive to succeed.

I have learnt that a winning mind-set is essentially having an attitude of mind, maintaining self-belief, and being relentless in sticking with a focus to achieve. With the right mind-set you will live, work and compete at your full potential. Virtually everything you do in your life is ruled by choices that you make. You can choose to focus on the negative or the positive, you can obsess about things beyond your control or you can focus on the things that you can influence. Focus on the right things, and you become a winner.

What does being a winner mean? What are winners made of? Is there any common denominator among winners? Yehuda Shinar, sports psychologist to Clive Woodward’s England rugby World Cup winners in 2003, has undertaken an 18-year research study into the mind-sets of winners, and identified how they attained their substantial level of achievement.

Shinar concluded that there are three key criteria for creating a winning mind-set:

Be self-aware Top performing individuals have a high level of self-awareness. Knowing your strengths, weaknesses, motivations and your approach to taking risks is key to your success. They keep themselves in balance, check-in and check-out, and always know where they’re at.

Stay in the zone Individuals that perform at the highest level have the ability to manage their thoughts, feeling, emotions and behaviours, essentially they are able to ‘manage the mist’ when they are under pressure. Maintaining an emotional balance manages your physiology.

Have a strategy Winners are goal oriented, they have a sense of purpose and direction – they know how to get there. They have a holistic strategy using a whole brain approach with a vision for the future desired outcome, a plan and an appropriate set of behaviours for achieving their goals.

Having the right mind-set and belief for achieving goals is the difference between winning and losing. Having a winning mind-set is not about being ruthless, stubborn or suppressing emotions. It requires openness to change, embracing failure rather than avoiding it. I am a strong believer that if you can dream it, you can achieve it. If you think it, you can become it. You can realise your potential.

Your thoughts become a reality and therefore you must be careful what you think about. Negative thoughts can become a reality too! There is a difference between accepting failure and being a failure. Failing at something is acceptable, accepting your failure is not.

Shinar has two further aspects to his definition of ‘winners’:

  • They repeatedly maximise their potential even when under pressure and in competitive scenarios.
  • They demonstrate constant improvement in their respective field.

His research shows there is no correlation between the extent of the achievement and the level of talent in the given area, or the IQ level of the winners, not even at the highest levels. Shinar thus defines the winning mind-set model as ‘winning intelligence’, a skill that can be learned, practiced, developed and improved, comprising the five elements outlined above, creating a model and a ‘capacity for winning’.

But what is the concept of ‘mind-set’. Mind-set is a simple idea discovered by world-renowned Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck in decades of research on achievement and success.

In a fixed mind-set, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are fixed traits and don’t develop them. They also believe that talent alone creates success. They’re wrong says Dweck.

In a growth mind-set, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work – brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Virtually all great people have had these qualities.

Mind-sets are beliefs about yourself and your basic qualities. Think about your intelligence, your talents, your personality. Are these qualities simply fixed traits, carved in stone and that’s that? Or are they things you can cultivate throughout your life?

Since the dawn of time, people have thought differently, acted differently, and fared differently from each other. Why is this? Experts lined up on both sides. Some claimed that there was a strong physical basis for these differences, making them unavoidable and unalterable. Through the ages these alleged physical differences have included bumps on the skull (phrenology), the size and shape of the skull (craniology), and today, genes.

Others pointed to the strong differences in people’s backgrounds, experiences, training, or ways of learning. It may surprise you to know that a big champion of this view was Alfred Binet, the inventor of the IQ test. Binet, a Frenchman working in Paris in the early C20th, designed this test to identify children who were not profiting from the Paris public schools, so that new educational programs could be designed to get them back on track.

It wasn’t originally an intelligence test. Without denying individual differences in children’s intellects, he believed that education and practice could bring about fundamental changes in intelligence.

Who’s right? Today most experts agree that it’s not either/or. It’s not nature or nurture, genes or environment. From conception on, there’s a constant give and take between the two. In fact, as Gilbert Gottlieb, an eminent neuroscientist put it, not only do genes and environment cooperate as we develop, but genes require input from the environment to work properly.

Of course, each person has a unique genetic endowment. People may start with different temperaments and different aptitudes, but it is clear that experience, training and personal effort take them the rest of the way. I believe that a person’s true potential is unknown (and unknowable), that it’s impossible to foresee what can be accomplished with years of passion, toil and training. Did you know that Darwin and Tolstoy were considered ordinary children?

You can see how the mind-set and belief that cherished qualities can be developed creates a passion for learning and slef-improvement. Why waste time proving over and over how great you are, when you could be getting better? Why hide deficiencies instead of overcoming them? And why seek out the tried and true, instead of experiences that will stretch you? The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mind-set. This is the mind-set that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives.

So we have a ‘winning intelligence’ model to work into a ‘growth mind-set’ as an approach to understand winners such as Xavi and Wiggins. I recall watching Wiggins as he crossed the Tour finish line and before punching the air with joy and pride, Wiggins punched a button on his bike computer to log the ride data. He had a performance mind-set for sure.

Wiggins is also relentless, adopting Dave Brailsford’s concept of ‘marginal gains’, pursuing the tiniest gains in everything – the bikes, fitness, training regimes, clothing, nutrition, strategy. Similarly Xavi is renowned for his dedication to training, instilling learning into new habits, often being the last in the gym, out on the running track and on the practice pitch.

So whilst much of the research, philosophy and approach to determining how ‘winning’ is achieved comes from studying world class athletes, you can distil this thinking into application for a business context, to take your individual performance up a gear, by simply asking yourself three questions

  • Have you defined what the next level of success looks like?
  • Have you identified what the incremental, marginal gains will be in order for you to get to the next level?
  • How often do you examine what’s working and not working? Too often we focus on what is being done as opposed to how it’s being done.

Winners embrace hard work, they love the discipline of it. Losers on the other hand, see it as punishment and not worth the effort. Losers live in the past, they have not yet learned how to win. Winners learn from the past and enjoy working in the present towards the future. That, simply, is the difference.