What Entrepreneurs Need Most, But No One Talks About — and How to Get It — Young Upstarts

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By Steven Myers, author of “Cross Winds: Adventure and Entrepreneurship in the Russian Far East”

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Patience, sacrifice, hard work, vision… There is no shortage of advice on how to develop any one of these attributes that are vital to entrepreneurship. Still, little is said of one thing if all entrepreneurs are to be successful:

courage

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As a four-time CEO of public and private companies, founder of one of the first joint ventures in the post-Soviet era, and as the first American since Charles Lindbergh to operate an aircraft in the Russian Kamchatka Peninsula (1992) I have seen that courage is the one thing that matters most in success as an entrepreneur, or in any other endeavor in life for that matter.

What every hero, explorer, adventurer, warrior, first responder, pilot, athlete and entrepreneur all have in common is the extraordinary ability to overcome the uncertainties of their circumstances to achieve success. That’s what courage really is. In some cases, it even extends to sacrificing one’s life along the way.

Where does the courage to do these things come from? How can entrepreneurs use it to achieve great things?

The truth is that most entrepreneurs fail, and for very good reasons; Lack of preparation, confusing an opportunity with a mirage, an idea that cannot withstand competitive market pressures, low capitalization or exorbitant costs due to poor macroeconomic conditions, or just bad timing. It only takes courage to face this reality. Yet, even if all these factors are working in your favor, you still have to muster up the courage to pursue the commitments you need through the uncertainties inherent in entrepreneurship. You certainly won’t have all the answers. You will have every reason to be afraid because everything will be on the line. Without courage you will not be able to press the button and take the right decision at the right time.

Courage is not just about accepting risks. Risks can be measured in ways and means to determine whether they are acceptable or can be mitigated. It is the residual unknown unknown of circumstances, the uncertainty of situations that could be dire. Most people cannot tolerate uncertainty. Tony Robbins observed that most people would rather live in mediocrity than do what they can to improve their lives, even if a better outcome is almost certain. Their fear paralyzes them. They are pessimists. And it is highly contagious. Conversely, people with courage are always optimistic. They find a way to overcome their fears, their doubts, and the uncertainties of their circumstances in order to accomplish what they can.

The story of my adventure began at the bottom of a mountain crevice where, at the age of 20, after a terrible fall during a mountain climbing trip, I was left dead. I should have been killed by falling. At least thirty feet before hitting anything. Miraculously, my final landing pad was the only flat rock around. I had a fractured pelvis, bleeding from a right arm and forehead injury from a compound fracture, and more.

Even worse, I was suffocating. “If I can figure out how to take just one breath, maybe I can figure out how to survive,” I thought. Eventually my breath took off. By the time I could move around a bit, I was going into shock and hypothermia. I realized that my friends had assumed I was dead. There was no way to reach me. I gave myself first aid, stopped the bleeding, and made a sling for my arm. With one hand, I dug a pit in the gravel and tucked myself into my sleeping bag to shield from the heat.

Till sunrise I was chilling and desperate to go into the sun. I spent all morning crawling among the gravel and rocks looking for a spot from which I would be able to climb up and out. The place I chose was nothing a sane person would attempt. I was out of options. I began sliding down the side of the crevasses wall with an arm and a leg that could do little more than support my weight, one very small step at a time. Any wrong move would be my end because I was holding my left hand with my fingers. Hours later, sitting on a rock in the sunlight, looking down at the tree line, and the beautiful terrain beyond, I felt energized. I knew I would survive.

The next day, a very stunned ranger on horseback ran up to me and very slowly using a crutch on a narrow trail I had made from a tree branch in a forest. He didn’t think it was a survival situation. They were coming for my body.

When I lay in the hospital’s ICU the next day, I realized that had this never happened to me, I would not survive. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t afraid. This experience was as scary as it sounded. But my entire focus was on what I had to do next to survive. I had discovered my innate sense of optimism at the bottom of that crack and came out of that quagmire with a purpose, a plan, and a mantra… “The cornerstone of courage is optimism.” My life was never the same.

While I don’t suggest a non-living experience as a practical approach to learning about courage, here’s what my personal experience taught me can provide a useful strategy for all of us to find spontaneous courage:

admit your fear

We all have fear. Make a list of the things you are afraid of. This may require some self-discovery: Maybe you’ve never really thought about what scared you at first. It can be roller coasters, tall heights, airplanes, caves, snakes, spiders, white water rafting, etc. Write down what you are afraid of. Prioritize the top ten list.

face your fears

Make a plan for each to face your fears and anxieties. If you are afraid of airplanes, arrange a private flight where you can sit in the co-pilot seat. If it’s a roller-coaster ride, go to an amusement park and ride it.

By facing your feelings of fear and discomfort, you may find that a normal response to fear is to create an illusion of control. Your brain pretends that you are capable of making the world small enough to make you feel safe.

Taking prudent precautions is always a practical way to reduce risk. But, thinking that one seat on an airplane is somehow safer than another is a good example of fear as a form of control.

ask yourself why you are afraid

This requires some introspection. Begin to notice when your choices are being shaped by fear, and stop to ask yourself, what, exactly, are you afraid of. ridicule? discomfort? Physical damage? Failure? Imagine the worst-possible scenario in each case and consider how likely it really is.

Practice stepping out of the comfort zone

Look for opportunities to step out of your comfort zone and experience things that create fear. Start small and keep it up. Courage is like a muscle: The more you challenge yourself to do the things that scare you and give off the illusion of control, the more courage you’ll build up.

There is a famous Churchill saying that a pessimist sees difficulty in every situation while an optimist sees opportunity in every difficulty. Most people know who they are. Some people call themselves “realists”. I consider them to be pessimists with a positive outlook. Successful entrepreneurs are pathologically optimistic. If you’re not an optimist, maybe consider not being an entrepreneur and working with one instead. Maybe as CFO or COO. Successful entrepreneurs need to work with pessimists and realists so that we can run off a cliff. I will always be grateful to my COO and CFO for the positive impact that their nature had on me.

steve myers

Steven Myers is a successful four-time CEO and serial entrepreneur, director of public and private company boards, public speaker, published author, accomplished aviator and two-time Air Force veteran. His private equity investment company, Dolphin Capital Holdings, Inc., has interests in a wide range of ventures. He is the author of “Cross Winds: Adventure and Entrepreneurship in the Russian Far East”.



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