This morning I watched a 9-year old recite a rather lengthy poem with ease from memory. He was standing alone in front of perhaps 125 people including his parents, younger brother, classmates, teachers, headmaster, and adults he didn't know. He was flawless in his execution until the final stanza when he completely froze, searching for the key word that would allow him to stick the landing.
Unfortunately, for that young boy, the word wasn't there. He looked for it, literally and figuratively, but couldn’t find it. The rules of declamation at the school prohibit any outside assistance for the kids. When they take the stage, it is their moment, and theirs only, to succeed or fail. If you’re the parent, you’re dying to throw him a lifeline. If you’re his teacher, you want to mumble that one magical word that will get the train rolling again. Even if you don’t know him, you know that the magnitude of this pause is increasing second by second and there’s only so much a fourth grader could be expected to bear. Yet, we all continued to wait.
It felt like an hour but it was no more than 30 seconds. Then, out of thin air, the word appeared, and the fourth grader nailed the poem’s ending just as solidly as he began. He received a rousing ovation that went a little longer than usual and a few unsuspecting parents were almost moved to tears both because of the content as well as the performance.
As you will come to know, the Amtrak café car is my other office, and it’s where remarkably I find a way of gathering my thoughts. I am on my way to NYC to meet with some of our portfolio company founders. I was reflecting on the school program from earlier and suddenly realized how similar the fourth grader’s experience is to the entrepreneur’s life. Think about it. You’re running your startup and everything is going well. Investors are happy, you’re generating revenue, employees are ecstatic, and perhaps breakeven is on the horizon. Then, out of nowhere, a new competitor emerges, a key customer departs, or you lose a critical team member or two. What do you do now?
When you look around the office you see that everyone is staring at you waiting for marching orders. Investors are wondering what the next steps are, advisors want to jump in but won’t because they know this is not their company, and your employees want to know that you’ve got everything under control.
Many times as the entrepreneur, you will feel all alone. It’s your stage, and yours alone. When that happens, what will you do? In the mind of a fourth grader, you focus on what you know and how you’ve prepared for this moment. You clear your head of any other distracting chatter and center your thoughts on what matters most. In the fourth grader’s case, he had to ask himself, “What was the last thing I said, and what would make sense to come next if I was writing this poem?” That kind of thinking leads you to the word you’re searching for. For the entrepreneur, you have to find a place where you can only hear your voice. That’s the place where everything is clear again, where it all slows down, and you can make the decision that is logical and right for the company and you.
Just keep in mind, that just like the fourth grader, you might only have 30 seconds in which to figure it out!
Note of disclosure: I have never been more proud of my oldest son than I was today at his declamation. It was his poem and although visibly flustered, he stood tall, persevered, powered through, and stuck the landing. He’s my hero of the day.