I’ve come to observe that there are usually two kinds of founders: athletes or artists. Ideally, you’re some composition of the two. And even if you’re not a real life athlete or artist, there are interesting comparisons to be drawn from these groups that will make you a better entrepreneur.
Athletes have to go through long, brutal hours of training. They have to be so focused when competing and mentally strong. They usually do only one thing but do them really really well. They are dedicated in their profession and always striving for perfection. They’re one of the most disciplined people on earth and they never give up.
This keeps me motivated every time I’m spinning at the gym. As a former athlete, I usually try to cycle harder than everyone else, even when I’m exhausted. Even when the instructor never showed up and half the class has gone home, the few of us who stay back will put on our own music and spin harder than when our instructor was around, and even when no one is looking. Athletes are doing it for themselves, not others. They do it to better their timing, jump higher, swim faster, push harder, or be more accurate… to set a personal record. They push their bodies to the limits and understand that it’s a state of mind. They understand that they are in control of their minds and that is one of the most important factors that separates the good athlete from the great athlete.
Photos above were compiled from my 7 years of competitive sparring throughout high school and college, 5 of them as a 2nd-Dan black belt. I travelled for 3 years along with the Cornell TKD Fight Team to compete in the Northeast Ivy League Taekwondo Competition (INTCL) at Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Columbia, West Point, MIT, NYU, Brown, and others.
The photo above was when the Cornell A1 Team won 1st place (my first A1 team placement) where Cornell subsequently took the championship title at the 2005 Princeton INTCL. I believe Tanya won MVP that year too (she’s fiercely the best of the best). I’d won many bronze medals but only 2 gold medals, so this was a huge personal victory.
Sometimes I look back to my high school college years and see those qualities that I carry in the sparring ring come out in my startup. When you get kicked or fall down, you get up immediately, no matter how painful it feels. You almost have to ignore the blood and bruises, and keep going even when you’re injured (this explains why I have a high tolerance for pain and it’s easier for me to block out setbacks in my startup and march forward). Being an athlete trains you to some extent to be bullish and immune to big blows, because you know they’re inevitable. You just have to be on guard and try to minimize them. And attack when the opportunity is right. You also have to stay so focused on the target because your opponent may beat you to death if you’re caught off guard (well, maybe just a lose a match). People around will keep cheering on you, which is motivating but usually a blur. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. But you train harder so you don’t get your ass kicked and you train until you win more matches than you lose them.
In short, athletes have persistence, grit and focus. They are usually motivated by personal achievement. Are you an “athlete” entrepreneur?
A tribute to other entrepreneurs I personally know who were former athletes: Jason Shen of RideJoy (read how he led the Stanford Men’s Gymnastics team as captain to their first NCAA championship in 14 years, after recovering from a massive knee injury), Reece Pacheco of Shelby.tv (who played professional lacrosse), Mike LaValle of Gojee (who went to West Point and spent a year in Afghanistan, whom I also consider to be an athlete).
Artists tend to be more creative visionaries. And by artists, I mean painters, musicians, actors, singers, or any profession that produces an art form to inspire an audience. They start with a blank canvas, and have to decide what to paint, what colors to use, what size a painting, what perspective. Do you copy another painting? Do you originate it? Or do you copy AND improvise it?
Artists tend to set out with an idea of the end goal, although they’re not bound by it. They often let the brushes and colors take a life of its own and the ultimate result is a mastery that is influenced by the journey. I think it’s quite brilliant and artist-type founders tend to breed innovation and allow room for positive changes to happen.
From another perspective, I also think that artists make really good engineers. Like an architect, an engineer has to know what the end goal is and create logical foundations that will support the desired returns. They have the freedom to use different technologies that will support their getting there.
As a painter myself, I notice myself often “borrowing” from my favorite paintings. I like the challenge of reproducing something seemingly difficult to reproduce and showing that I too, can be a great master artist. I’m more of an artist that gets my inspiration from other paintings and add my personal flavors to it. At the moment, I am not originating because I want to learn from the best first. And then one day, when I’ve finally found my signature painting style, I will originate.
In short, artists are resourceful, inventive and visionaries. They are usually motivated by the creation of something for the enjoyment and benefit of others. They want to inspire others with their work and hopefully leave a legacy in doing so. Are you an “artist” entrepreneur?
Given that I’ve been both an athlete and artist in real life, I think I’m 60% an athlete entrepreneur and 40% an artist founder. I personally think both traits are important, since you can be the most creative and innovative person on earth, but if you don’t have the persistence to see it through, you may never realize your vision. On the other hand, you can’t blindly run too hard in one direction if it’s the wrong direction in the first place. An ideal entrepreneur should have the vision to paint what would make their painting gain the most recognition or admiration (which usually translates to more money and fame) but also have the athlete’s determination and patience to practice until you’ve found the right composition for the final masterpiece.
What is your athlete-artist ratio as an entrepreneur? Are there other types of comparative founder traits that you’ve been able to observe? Would love to see comments!