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Serena Williams is my new favorite athlete (and if you work in the start-up industry she should be yours too)
This weekend Carrie and I went to the U.S. Open for the women’s final with friends who are big into tennis and have absurd seats. We were 15 feet from Serena on the baseline and I was blown away. I had never thought playing tennis was like running a start-up, but watching Serena work put the metaphor in my head. At a startup you are experimenting all the time, winning some, failing some but always pushing the limits of what is possible based on your instinct at the time. Sort of like tennis in terms of cadence. The cadence of tennis is also all about running experiments, learning and moving on. You do this on each point within the context of a game, a set and a match. The strategy you bring to each point needs to fit within a longer term plan to win the match and some points matter more than others so the intensity is variable as well.
Within this context (if you will buy the metaphor for the next 300 words), CEOs could learn a lot from Serena. There were the obvious things like her power, skill, intensity, athleticism and relentless, focused attacks on every point. BUT, the thing that moved her from amazing athlete to my new favorite athlete was her ability to recognize her mistakes, play them back, understand them, and then mentally move on. When I make mistakes, sometimes I get stuck in the failure of it instead of learning from it. I can lose confidence or be less aggressive the next time I have an opportunity to win a point or face a problem to solve. I have seen this in the founders I work with as well and thinking about this made me admire Serena’s mental toughness even more.
She didn’t do it on each point — some points you play your game and you lose — for these, you smile and move on. It was the unforced errors that she seemed to really learn from. Throughout the match, when Serena did not execute or when she was forced into a position of weakness by her opponent and the result was a lost point, she would stop, talk to herself a little as she was thinking through the mistake, internalizing it and and replaying the motion. I could see her correct the mistake in her head, and then physically make a “brush it off” motion with her hand before she called the ball back into play. This little hand flick was a physical marker that the mistake was gone — processed, learned from, forgotten. With this hand flick, she was ready to attack again, to play to win rather than to avoid mistakes and to be comfortable trusting her instincts as she pushed herself to the very edge of her comfort zone and ability on the next point.
Not sure it applies directly to our start-up world, but if you see me walking around talking to myself and flicking my hand, you will know that I just learned something and am now a little better for it.