Fighting, Dancing & Startups: Discipline & Communication
There’s this cool proverb by the famous Japanese swordsman Miyaomoto Musashi which goes, “From one thing, know ten thousand things.”
I have seen references to that concept in other startup books, and how it’s vital to being able to move in line with the “fail fast, fail cheap, fail early” methodology. It reminded me of this interview with Kobe Bryant. When asked about how he approached building his business, he’d refer to Jonathan Ive, the CDO of Apple, and processes in product design—explaining how you can draw things from other unrelated fields “to be better at what you do by looking at those common denominators.”
With that said, here are lessons I’ve learned from dancing, fighting and how they connect with entrepreneurship—more specifically, working with startup accelerators and the things I’ve observed. These tips are nothing new (and this may very well sound like a cliché self-help blog post), but perhaps when contextualized and reinforced from different avenues, they may catalyze a deeper understanding or stronger resolve. If anything, by making these connections in seemingly contrasting endeavors—whether it be dancing, fighting, or entrepreneurship—it will help you appreciate your own path and passions even more (…orrrr you might just be inspired to pick up dancing or combat sports, who knows? Everyone needs a hobby.) A quote by Michel de Montaigne goes, “There is nothing more notable in Socrates than that he found time, when he was an old man, to learn music and dancing, and thought it time well spent.”
Fellow colleague Noel out of HAX wrote a blog post in which he mentions how important discipline is to running a startup (and draws the parallels between startups and disability). Likewise, with fighting, dancing, or anything for that matter, discipline is the foundation for success. Discipline is why you go to bed early or why you get in the extra set of repetitions of a technique at the end of a training session.
If you’re a startup going through an accelerator (and thus, you have the accelerator and its partners vouching for you), there are expectations that are results-oriented, and the ability to execute is how you gain the respect and trust of mentors/investors who will invest in you again in the future—even if your startup doesn’t pan out. Likewise, as a fighter getting sponsored at a gym, or a dancer with a studio or crew, your willingness to work hard, train, and compete will earn the respect and trust of those invested in your development, making them more willing to help you in the future.
That is very important, and I cannot stress it enough. It’s disheartening to see founders getting lost in the allure of being somewhere new (in my case, Shenzhen with HAX), where they spend much of the early time in the accelerator partying and then end up procrastinating toward the end.
It especially takes discipline to execute fast and consistently, as well as to Iterate over and over again while refining your processes. So be disciplined.
As discipline is essential to excelling at any craft, communication is one of the most important skills to develop. When you dance, you communicate how the music makes you feel while (hopefully) executing sound technique that induces aesthetic pleasure in observers. When you fight, your cornerman sees vulnerabilities in your opponent and communicates them to you with techniques to execute on. You communicate your will to win to your opponent by continuing and persisting despite getting hit—it’s definitely a good way to intimidate someone by just continuing forward, even if you’re getting rocked. You communicate to your gym or studio how hard you’re willing to work and how far you want to go, and if they believe you, they’ll provide you with the resources and environment (training and education) to get you there.
It’s the people around you in any endeavor that, when priorities are aligned and everyone is on the same page, can accelerate your development —whether you’re a dancer, fighter, startup, or what have you—and that is only facilitated by good communication. If you want to keep fighting, then you’ll earn those opportunities when you put the work in (execute) at training—because you’re providing tangible evidence for your coaches, managers, and training partners that you’ll deliver, and perform in the ring or on the stage.
The same goes for startups. You communicate with your team members about objectives, and how you can work efficiently together. You communicate with your mentor/investors about what you want and plan to do, bounding your team to expectations. You communicate with your customers and community about what you plan to deliver. All that remains is executing on all fronts. Rinse and repeat.
Since most of the teams I work with have geographically distributed members, this becomes even more important, and many teams have expressed how much friction is due to lack of communication with team members in other parts of the world.
The last thing you want is lost trust and people blaming others. So all you can do is fulfill your end of the bargain of what plans you communicated.
Presentation delves deeper into communication—how you communicate your product. In fighting and dancing, your game or your dance is your product—the thing you’ve put hours into crafting. There’s a famous saying within the urban dance community: “It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it.” So when you show your “product”, you want to present it in the best light. The same goes for startups gaining the opportunity to pitch their products at conferences with potentially big media exposure.
Presentation is everything, especially in a startup accelerator with press-heavy demo days and startups debuting their 3-4 months of hard work. Does it look nice with a sleek design? Do you have a consistent look and feel on your slide deck that is also consistent with your overall branding? Do you have polished product demo videos in the event if your live demo doesn’t work (it’s no secret that products often get stage fright)? And do you have a coherent pitch and compelling story?
Watching startups, I sometimes see this “get your product to a point where it can do the basics or some of the stuff you promise, and then paint a compelling vision of the future at your pitch, while glossing over the details”. It’s this idea of, “look how much we did on my own or with limited resources, now imagine what we could do if we had more support or staff (which requires money)—so buy from or invest in us!” If you present that in a compelling way that resonates with your audience, you increase your chance of succeeding.
I’ll end the presentation point with another quote. When asked about how one can get good at stand-up comedy, Joe Rogan replied, “Stage time. Get as much stage time as you possibly can. Fight for the stage.” Likewise for fighters, dancers, and startups alike: look for any opportunity to put your best foot forward, and when you do, crush it.
Pay Attention to Your Own Path
The lessons you learn from the pursuits you really love to learn and grow in can be extracted and reinforced by applying them to your startup and vice versa. It’s quite simple: do what you say you’re going to do. Earn the respect of those around you, and get them on board. But as we all know, simple doesn’t mean easy. And as you are often a reflection of those that support you, it’s best to not let their belief in you go unrewarded. Even though entrepreneurs work insane hours on low-budget lifestyles like dancers and fighters, it’s all for the love of the game, baby!