On the long car ride home from the Future Business Leaders of America conference in Nashville, I turned on one of my favorite podcasts, EconTalk, to hear a great conversation between host Russ Roberts and WSJ’s Gregory Zuckerman about the amazing energy boom in the middle United States.
One of the things that struck me from the stories of wildly successful oil and natural gas “frackers” and investors was how often, how big, and how long they failed. The ones who succeeded in the end owed (at least) as much to persistence and outlasting the competition as they did to special insight or entrepreneurial genius.
Some of these people just kept taking failures the way Rocky took head-shots and body blows, and staggered back up to throw another wild punch. At times it seems almost sad. Rocky evoked pity in round after round, face bloodied. Yet he become a champion. What made him great was not his powerful knockout punches, quick footwork, graceful dodges, or lightening jabs. What made Rocky great was his ridiculous ability to absorb punch after grueling punch, in body and in spirit. He just kept getting back up. At some point, the punches slowed a bit and his opponent ran out of steam or made a mistake.
The more I study entrepreneurs, the more I think the big “closers” or lucky long-shots are the rarest of exceptions. The real winners are the persistent ones, not necessarily those with the best ideas, salesmanship, funding, or operations. All these things matter. A lot. Yet no matter how good you are at them, you are going to take some big hits. At all stages in the process, some major disappointment or surprise will blindside you like a mouthguard-flinging left hook. Not just one at a time. Likely several in succession. And just when you think you’ve steadied yourself, one more. The great ones keep going. They take the hits and fight on.
I don’t know what the balance is here. Sometimes big hits are the markets way of telling you to throw the towel before you drop for good at the hands of an unstoppable force, Apollo Creed style. But I don’t think most of us are in danger of staying in the ring too long, and in this country it’s pretty hard to hit unrecoverable rock-bottom as an entrepreneur (at least financially and reputationally. Your personal life may be a different story, but then that’s less about your entrepreneurial endeavors than your overall approach to life.)
For me the lesson is simple and incredibly uplifting: When it comes to long-term success, it’s more important to learn to take punches than to throw the big one. Someone or something else can always hit bigger. Not many can survive the full twelve rounds.