Let me come right out and confess it: I’ve never been much of an athlete. Yes, I did play that one year of little league baseball when I was twelve, in an awkward attempt to bond with my sports fanatic stepfather, who coached one of the teams. It didn’t end well. I spent those several months standing way out in right field, watching one pop fly after another bounce out of my glove and onto the grass while the Bad New Bears theme song played over and over in my head. And I never got a single hit or even a walk the entire season.
Which is why nobody is more surprised than me that I not only ran cross country in high school for four years, but was actually on the varsity team for three of those. How the heck, you might wonder, did that happen?
Well, if you read my last article about being in a club for six years from grade school to junior high, you know that it started with a simple yes in a hallway. This story is similar. Kind of. It starts in June, with Eighth Grade Me minding my own business, trying to open my stubborn locker, when the Biology teacher, Mr. Demyon, walked up behind me and clapped a hand on my shoulder.
I turned, and then probably went pale. Which is saying something for me, because I’m already about as pale as it gets. Anyway, the reason why is because Mr. Demyon had a reputation for being quite … intimidating. I knew he was either in the armed forces or had been, and carried himself in a military manner. Hard as nails. Unforgiving. Intense. Whenever he got angry, you could see his teeth gritting behind his cheeks.
The reason I knew this last detail was because earlier that year, he’d caught me goofing off with some lab equipment during General Science in the room that was usually his. Then too, he had walked up behind me. In a quiet yet threatening voice, he had asked, “Are you having fun?” Caught completely off guard, I made the rookie mistake of saying yes. To which he replied, with the terseness of a hammer, “Well, stop!” and then walked away, leaving my blood curdling in my veins.
Since this had been my only interaction with Mr. Demyon so far, seeing him standing there behind me, his hand on my shoulder, I expected the worst. Was he still mad about the lab equipment? Was I doing something I wasn’t supposed to do with my locker? Had I breathed wrong?
What he finally said made no sense: “You’re joining cross country.”
I couldn’t quite process the words. It was as if by flouting my expectations, he’d spoken a different language. “I’m what?” I asked.
“You’re joining the cross country team in the fall.” In my memory, that’s just how he said it. Not a question but a statement. It’s what sales rep friends of mine have referred to as The Assumptive Close. And since I didn’t say no, I guess my own “yes” in this case was implicit. I was joining the cross country team. The coach for which, in case you haven’t guessed yet, was Mr. Demyon himself.
Fortunately for me, he had played the same Jedi Mind Trick on several of my friends (some of whom were former members of The Club). So while I didn’t feel confident about my fate, it at least helped to know that I wouldn’t be enduring whatever kind of torture ”cross country” was alone.
As it turned out, of course, there was nothing to worry about. In fact, like The Club, being a member of that team would largely shape for the better the person and even the entrepreneur I would later become. And Coach Demyon? Despite our rocky start, he would become my first and greatest mentor, and a dear friend.
That’s getting ahead of myself, though.
During the summer, I followed the instructions on a mimeographed sheet that the coach sent us in the mail. On week one, run from one telephone pole to another. Then walk to the next pole. Then run. Then walk. And so on. On week two, run two poles and walk one. And so on and so on, until by the end of the summer, I was running a mile without walking. Not a fast mile, by any means. I was no Rocky running up the steps in the training montage (although I did use “Gonna Fly Now” for inspiration). But I was running.
None of this prepared me for the first practice, though, once school started. My friends and I were tiny freshman, faced with the looming giants that were the senior team members. Not only could they run circles around us, but they were also — how to put this nicely? — kind of assholes. (So much for nicely.) When the coach wasn’t looking, they lorded their age over us, hazing us any way they could.
In hindsight, I’m sure those guys thought they were doing us some kind of favor. Toughening us up for what was ahead. Yet while I can give them the benefit of the doubt that their intentions were (maybe) good, it’s still hard to approve of their methods, which felt too much like bullying for my tastes. By my reckoning, it was Coach Demyon’s job to be hard on us, not theirs. But who was I to say?
Anyway, so by the end of the first week, I was sore in places I didn’t even know existed. When we weren’t out running, the coach had us doing sit-ups, push-ups, and something terrible called wind sprints. I know now that he was just conditioning us, but for a scrawny kid who’d never exercised much, it was downright brutal, and I wasn’t sure I could take another week of it. If not for having friends on the team (misery loves company), I’m fairly certain I would have quit before week two.
But we all hung in there together and gradually it got, if not easy, then easier.
To be honest, as daunting as long distance running had seemed at first, it grew on me quickly. Maybe because unlike baseball or basketball or football, I was competing more with myself, with my own ability to push myself, than with anybody else. Also, there was no need to coordinate with other “players” by making split second decisions about where to throw things or being constantly on alert about catching things. As long as you didn’t run into anybody else, you were fine.
Running was also the perfect sport for an introvert like myself. Lots of time to think. To be deep inside my head even as I was propelling my body through space, down a back road or along a twisty path in the woods.
I had a lot on my mind back then, as most teenagers do: schoolwork, girls I liked, books I was reading, stories I was writing, girls I liked, computer programs I was coding, the changing nature of friendships, girls I liked, and deep philosophical questions like, “Who would win in a fight between Mad Max from The Road Warrior and Snake Plissken from Escape from New York?” And did I mention girls?
The races themselves were a fresh kind of hell at first. As arduous as dealing with lactic acid, cramps, shin splints, and senior hazing had been, racing against runners from other schools was downright insane. Because when everybody is running fast, and adrenaline kicks in, your first instinct is to run fast too. But that doesn’t work out well for three-point-two miles. So you have to learn how to run fast enough not to fall too far behind in the pack, but slow enough that you aren’t bent over puking at mile marker two.
It took some time, but I gradually found my rhythm. In fact, I actually started to get really good at it. Halfway through that first year, the coach bumped me up from the freshman team to the junior varsity team. And best of all, I’d reached the point where I didn’t feel as if I wanted to throw up at the end of every race.
Before I knew it, the season was over. And I had survived.
I’ve thought about that first season of running cross country often this past year, during Year One of getting my business off the ground. I’ve often mulled over the lessons I learned back then that I still carry with me to this day, which inform and color my experience as an entrepreneur. Here are a few …
Endurance, not speed, is the key to success.
Many of us were exposed at a young age to Aesop’s classic fable about the race between the tortoise and the hare, but many of us forget to apply it to ourselves. Bolt away from the starting line too soon, and you’ll either be taking a nap halfway through like the hare did, or losing your lunch like I did.
Businesses take time to get off the ground. In the modern culture of “hustle” and “grind,” it’s tempting to move and “fail fast.” But move too fast, and you run the risk of never making it to the finish line. The tortoise knew this, and won the race.
Nobody is obliged to make things easy on you.
As much as I despised at the time those seniors who hazed us, they taught me a valuable lesson about what to expect from others when you start your own business. Namely, that there will never be any shortage of people who compete with you, slow you down, or — worst of all — don’t believe in you.
Few things are as effective at destroying the confidence of an entrepreneur than a well-meaning friend or family member who tries to convince you that what you’re doing isn’t sensible or practical or financially responsible.
You are, first and foremost, competing with yourself.
There’s a famous line from a Walt Kelly comic strip where the main character says, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” This was true for my first year of cross country and applies even more to my first year of business.
No other person has spent as many hours putting me down, questioning my abilities, and generally trying to talk me out of things as I have myself. After all, I know better than anybody which buttons to push. Overcoming those limiting beliefs and negative voices in my head has easily been my biggest challenge to date.
The hard times are easier to endure with friends.
When you’re stuck dealing with people, including yourself, who get in the way of pursuing your goals, it can certainly help to have at least a few of them in your corner. Especially if they’re dealing with challenges similar to the ones you are.
In this regard, LinkedIn proved to be an important lifeline for me at exactly the point when I was feeling the most discouraged about my business last year. I was able to connect and engage with dozens of entrepreneurs who either had or were going through similar issues as me, and it made all the difference.
The ability to recognize potential is crucial.
Last, but certainly not least, I have to give credit where it’s due to Coach Demyon for seeing the potential for athleticism in me and in so many other sports-averse bookworms who didn’t see it in themselves.
The ability to recognize potential and possibility — whether in people, processes, ideas, or relationships — is crucial when running a start-up. Because it’s all potential at this stage, isn’t it? Making the right choices and placing the right bets early on can mean the difference between success or failure down the line.
There is, of course, more to the story of my cross country experience. But I wanted to give the first year the respect it deserved and not rush through it to keep the word count down. Because first years are important. It’s valuable to remember where we started. So I’m grateful that between engagement on LinkedIn and through the articles I’ve written, I’ve managed to document so much of the experience of getting my business off the ground.
For the next installment, I’ll run more quickly (pun intended) through the other three years and the somewhat different lessons learned during that time.