Published on July 1st, 2012 | by David Shaner2
Learning to Dance AT the Wedding
Basketball and Mental Collisions
When I was younger, I used to play a lot of basketball. My family had a pretty good-sized driveway where I had set up a goal, and most afternoons you could find me there sweaty, barefoot, and full of imagination.
Alone in the driveway I could be as good as I wanted to be. There was no crowd, no media to judge my mistakes, and with every made basket I became the Michael Jordan of my own mind.
After many hours of preparation, it came time to leave the comfort of the driveway and join the other kids my age. Though the resulting games seemed like trivial playground scraps, they had huge psychological repercussions at the time. You see, the moment I left the driveway and exposed my talent to the world, there was a violent and very real collision between my imagination (where I reigned supreme as the God of Basketball) and the reality of my abilities.
There were really only two possible outcomes. In one, the shots would keep falling, my team would win, and I could entertain my fantasies of Basketball Stardom for another day, another week, another year. In the other, I lose, and the world discovers the horrifying truth that I am not, in fact, Michael Jordan incarnate.
There is a very real temptation as a boy of 8 to avoid that collision, to protect my ego from the psychological danger. Though I poke fun at how sensational and fleeting those dreams were, they were very real and very important at that age, and dealing with reality was very painful. Why ever leave the safety of the driveway, where you can thrive in blissful ignorance? Why test the waters?
Perfectionists, Slackers, and Fear
I tell that story because most people spend the majority of their lives in the figurative driveway: the artist, perpetually putting “the finishing strokes” on that new painting before anyone sees it; the author, making endless “last second” revisions to a manuscript before turning it in; the med school student, never quite done with his or her personal statement on the application. These are the perfectionists.
But the driveway is also home to the slackers. You know, the students who got bad grades because they “didn’t try.” People who aren’t successful because they “don’t care.”
A close study shows that perfectionists and slackers are really on opposite sides of the same coin, that there is a root cause for both eternal last-second revisions and feigned apathy.
That root cause is fear. Fear of the collision between imagination and reality. Fear that we’re not as smart, not as athletic, not as gifted or as talented as we thought—as we imagined.
If we stay in the driveway, we’ll always be MJ. If we keep revising our work, we never have to release it, and it never has to be judged and found wanting. If we never try our hardest, we never have to find out what we’re really made of. We never have to look ourselves in the mirror.
This is a common, yet insidious, attitude.
I used to spend a lot of time in the figurative driveway. I always had to make sure everything was “just so” before other people saw it. After all, I had an image to maintain, a perceived talent and intelligence that had to be continually verified by others. I couldn’t let people see me when I was practicing perfection. They’d know I was a fraud!
But as life hurtles forward and we get busier, there is less and less time for all the theatrics required to be perfect at all times. You can’t spare the hours it takes to polish everything, to tuck in every corner, to always fail in private, to only present a finished package to the world.
The first thing I learned about entrepreneurship is that you don’t have the luxury of the driveway. New situations, needed skills, and exciting opportunities come fast and frequently. Every day you pour your heart and soul into pitches, ideas, products, and conversations that are unpolished, uncut, and visible to the whole world—a world that is used to seeing everyone’s public-ready, rehearsed, and refined work. A world that loves to judge and judge harshly.
It’s unnerving at first. You feel naked. If you’re hiding weaknesses, they are exposed. If they were already exposed, they become magnified.
But then a very strange thing happens. You realize that it’s good for you.
We spend our lives tiptoeing around situations that could bring focus to our flaws, without realizing that we really need a magnifying glass and some sunlight if we want to burn them out of our character. By making ourselves vulnerable, throwing ourselves into uncomfortable situations, and finding out what we’re really made of (no matter how horrifying), we actually discover a feeling of calm, a sense of self-confidence. We’re no longer afraid of the collisions between imagination and reality; we no longer need the driveway.
When people ask me what entrepreneurship is like, I tell them to imagine a wedding. It’s the superlative “driveway” event, where everything is rehearsed and organized to achieve that picturesque, fantastical vibe. But imagine if you had to plan a 500 person wedding the night before: you had to locate a place, cater food, buy drinks, and find a willing priest all in 24 hours. But worst of all, there’s no time to prepare for that all-important first dance, so instead of looking stunning, coordinated, and graceful, you end up stumbling through a three minute song in front of 500 friends and family with no preparation, knowing the whole time that with a little more practice you could have been dazzling. Could you deal with that?
In other words, entrepreneurship is about being comfortable with public failure and judgment. It’s about being confident in who you are and trusting that even if you find out you’re not Michael Jordan, you’ve still got a “shot.”