Lessons from the Olympics

Phelps2The Olympics are always inspiring with the amazing results achieved by the competing athletes. It’s easy to look at someone like Michael Phelps and decide that he provides no inspiration for the average person because he has been groomed for over a decade to excel at this event due to his extraordinary natural talent–and the reality is that yes he has.

What is easy to ignore in Michael’s life-story, however, is that he has worked extraordinarily hard to get to the position that he is in. Unbelievably extraordinarily hard. And so has every athlete at the Olympics. They’ve found what they are good at and have worked extraordinarily hard at doing their best at it. This is not only the secret of successful athletes in all sports but also the secret of successful entrepreneurs and technologists worldwide, and a model of success that can be accessed by anyone: find what you are good at and work extraordinarily hard at it. Don’t be lulled into the job model that has been created for those who work at something that merely defines something they can do. There is an unspoken job model that is not taught in school and never really discussed, but it is a model for those who find themselves in the unique position of being able to work at what they are best at:

If you resonate at your job, ring it as hard as humanly possible.

I am constantly amazed at talented people who have the ability to do great things in their professions…yet they don’t achieve greatness because they treat their job like the average job that they’ve been taught to expect: working nine-to-five (well, nine-to-six is the norm these days) and only do what they are asked to do.

Finding what you are good at and working as hard as you can at that is, frankly, a luxury that most people don’t have. Most people aren’t able to spend their salaried time doing what they do well—most people just work to make a living no matter what the job. Being paid to do what you do well is an opportunity that perhaps one can only truly appreciate at the end of one’s career—to be thankful for being paid to be best at exactly what one is in fact best at. The satisfaction of this unique situation is not about being paid for it, of course; it’s about being judged at what one does best and being given the opportunity to excel at what one does best. If one takes that opportunity, that is.

OlympicsThat opportunity, of course, defines the lives of Olympic athletes. And nothing defines them more than matching their talents to their training and working as hard as they can to be best as they can. In the spectacular finish of the American 400m freestyle relay, the finish of Jason Lezak was spectacular: his performance seemingly pre-destined for the history books, and an achievement celebrated worldwide. Yet what’s not seen nor appreciated by the Olympics viewers is the incredible—and I mean incredible beyond what most people can ever imagine—incredible work ethic that Lezak executed to put himself in the position to be able to make one of the most amazing comebacks ever.

Randy Pausch, the Carnegie Mellon professor who became an online sensation when he gave a Last Lecture after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer (and who passed away soon after), provided simple yet insightful advice about achievements and work ethic:

The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out; the brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. The brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They are there to stop the other people!

Work hard. Work harder than others. Work hardest if you are really good at it. Challenges simply exist for you to overcome then if you are up to it.

Most people complain about their jobs and the perceived difficulties and obstacles that they experience. This tip is for the few of you who want to be able to look back on your career with sanguine satisfaction rather than a melancholy attitude towards all that you simply put up with: the brick wall is there for a reason, so let your colleagues complain about it while you scale it, put it behind you, and face new challenges that few ever progress far enough to even come up against.

Competition is Why You Play

While I have not been happy with this season’s Michigan Football, and do think that Coach Carr was out-coached by both the Buckeyes and Trojans at the end of last season, I was pleased to see these words from the embattled Carr about the upcoming game with Ohio State:

You embrace the pressure because the competition is why you play. It’s why you coach. More than anything else, it’s about competing to the best of your ability in a game you love and to try to achieve something with a group of people that you care about.

That sentiment speaks to the attitude found throughout Silicon Valley and provides a clue to its success.

Some people in the Valley simply work for their paycheck, and that’s okay. The top workers in the Valley, however, work for the challenge of achieving success in the face of difficult competition, and for these people meeting that challenge provides much of the satisfaction that drives them in their work. There’s no escaping this mentality in the Valley, it’s everywhere.

Stock options are often the most visible motivators in the Valley and are valuable motivators and rewards for many (just ask this masseuse), but they are often simply apparitions of false rewards that misdirect motivations. The Valley provides the opportunity for ambitious entrepreneurs to pursue their ambitions of competitive success, assuming that those ambitions allow for the success of funding venture capitalists.

One of the qualities that venture capitalists most value, not surprisingly, is a management team that is experienced in the field of their business plan and who display a desire for success and resilience to fight through inevitable difficulties. In the face of roadblocks and problems, those motivated only by stock options will quit and pursue seemingly brighter paths. Those who remain are those dedicated to their field and who find satisfaction in conquering those challenges.

To understand this mentality, all you have to do is spend some time with entrepreneurs at various meetings in the Bay Area to feel their heat and desire to succeed. This is the je ne sais quoi of Silicon Valley—that certain something that continues to allow this region of the country to be so successful in technology. You feel the urge for technological development in Palo Alto as strongly as you feel the urge for filmmaking when in Santa Monica.

People talk and exude their passion for their work here whenever possible—I recall a July 4th party last year where I ended up talking with Bill Atkinson about his latest work with Jeff Raskin’s company Numenta and their approach to modeling cortical processes. Not your usual picnic conversation about baseball, hotdogs, and Chevrolet—Bill spoke as if this was these were the most critical ideas ever worth discussing. It was the kind of passion that one finds over and over again among successful people in the Valley.

And among top football coaches, which is what got me started on this tangent about worth ethic in Silicon Valley. Even here, though, if you go the equivalent of 1–6 against Ohio State’s latest coach, not even a tier 3 VC would provide bridge funding to keep your entrepreneurial dreams afloat. Good luck on Saturday, Coach Carr.

Page Pontificates About, Gates Produces Academic Entrepreneurism

The AAAS annual meeting took place last last week in San Francisco, and Larry Page was scheduled to be a plenary speaker on Saturday night. Having given my own talk at the conference Saturday, I stuck around afterwards to hear Page’s. It turned out that Page switched places with the plenary speaker scheduled for the night before, and I ended up seeing Nobel prize winning physicist Steven Chu instead. Too bad, because Page apparently talked about the need for academics to market their work and for academia to pursue entrepreneurism, something that is of interest to this blog and that I’ve posted about before (blog posts from others on the talk can be found here and here). Chu’s talk, however, was probably more interesting than Larry’s.

Chu directs the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and spoke about global energy resources, agricultural development, and world health. One part of his talk that I found particularly interesting was his discussion of a chemical engineering professor at UC Berkeley, Jay Keasling, who has discovered a way to get bacteria to become mini-factories for the creation of a malaria vaccine. His work, which I’m going to guess was being funded by the NIH, got the attention of the Bill&Melinda Gates Foundation who subsequently donated $43 million to develop his technique on a mass scale so that his treatment could be distributed cheaply and efficiently around the world.

One stipulation of this funding was that the malaria treatment would have to be sold at no profit for the developing company. But, the company could use whatever technology and inventions it did create during the development of the malaria treatment for other profitable purposes. The first not-for-profit biotech company was created with the Gates funding and this company was given a mandate to increase the volume of this treatment by a factor of a million (or so) and reduce the price of the treatment down to 20 cents a dose (or so), which they did—astonishing, given the price of newly developed drugs these days. And, the company created technology that it believes will spur other drug developments and, of course, create a profit for the company’s continued existence.

This is a unique example of integrating academic research with entrepreneurship, something that Larry Page had promoted the night before. In the absence of the Gates Foundation’s initiative, Prof Keasling would likely have received more government funding at a considerably lower amount than the Gates offering, and the development of a cheap malaria treatment available on a large scale would have taken years longer to get to those who need it. Proposing to fund R&D only if the resulting product is sold at cost while allowing profit from any collateral development is a great funding model—one that the NIH’s Small Business Funding Opportunities program should consider. It solves the problem of jointly satisfying the desire to make inventions from government-funded grants as widely accessible as possible while providing startup companies the opportunity to profit from their efforts in productizing the grant-funded technology. University professors want their ideas to be “free to the world”, while companies need to make a profit on the ideas that they bring to market in order for the company to survive (and have the ability to bring more ideas to the market in the future). This does both.

I also like the hutspah of the Gates Foundation to simply come in, tell a researcher to “Make it happen”, and give them the resources to do so. No screwing around with the slow slog of writing grants, getting them reviewed, possibly further rounds of submissions, then finally training graduate students to do the research. Much of the $30 billion spent by the NIH to fund academic research is done so with the intention that the research will benefit the general public whose tax dollars pay for it. Certainly, grant proposals often proclaim the potential benefit of the research to the general public right up front (in my field, many grants begin by stating that the US has 30 million hearing impaired people and that their research will help develop better hearing aids). Most of this research ends with a published paper as the only resulting final product—science advances through a better understanding of the topic that was researched, but no direct benefit to society is discernible. This has been one of the reasons for the NIH initiative towards Translational Research.

As an aside, I was stunned a few weeks ago when Bill Gates was on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and spent 15 minutes talking about the Windows Vista launch with no mention of the incredible work that his foundation is doing. Gates is changing the shape of philanthropy and this was a great time to talk about it to a large, young population who probably doesn’t think at all about gift-giving. My wife suggested the explanation—she is a professional fundraiser—that the Gates Foundation likely depends on the success of Microsoft for their financial ability to pursue their high goals. So, Gates wasn’t actually wasting an opportunity on The Daily Show by being a salesman, he was simply trying to maximize the capabilities of his Foundation by promoting Vista sales. Maybe.