The popular view sees entrepreneurship as meritocracy at its purest. Startup culture treats the winners in this game like celebrities; like they are gods.
Too often the rest, the also-rans, the unfunded, the short-lived are scorned. These entrepreneurs are marked by unrewarded sacrifices, by pity, and as if their apparent failures are their most enduring attribute.
Well, maybe it’s time we reconsidered this.
When I was a kid, I loved watching old kung fu movies with my friends.
I wasn’t particularly discriminating either. If I could watch people dressed in strange clothing, wielding bizarre weapons, screaming in languages I didn’t understand, all while beating the it-shay out of each other, I was in heaven.
I later studied and taught various martial arts. (I even have a few instructional videos if you’re curious.)
I don’t know that I was ever particularly good. But it felt like something I was supposed to do.
And one thing I learned was how to kiai.
A kiai is that deep diaphragm shout that makes it into every martial arts parody.
Despite being an easy thing to poke fun at, the kiai is a deeply meaningful practice with both physical and metaphysical effects.
Asia isn’t the only place where human being developed battle cries, war dances, music, or shouts associated with combat. Military drums are a part of many cultures, Scottish Bagpipes and Irish Warpipes had wartime use, Zulu war dances, Native Americans had war drums, songs, and dances, and no list would be complete without the stirring Maori Haka.
These rhythms and sounds permeate human cultures.
From the Haka to the kiai, these dances, songs, and shouts are about the most elemental things that make us alive. Heartbeat and breath.
It’s like meditation. If you’ve ever tried mediation didn’t you learn breathing techniques almost from the beginning? To get into the right mental state requires focus on the most basic parts of your physical state, your breathing. As Tony Robbins says, change the body, change the mind.
Some forms of meditation include making a sound as you do this. Breath. Heartbeat. Sound.
Just as meditation aligns your breathing for quiet tranquil stillness, the kiai is a form of breathing that aligns with action.
The madness of entrepreneurship
Parodies of Bruce Lee don’t keep people from learning martial arts. Stats about risk and failure don’t keep entrepreneurs from starting companies.
The siren call is irresistible to them. It’s part of the air they breathe. They can’t not do it.
And the rest of us, investors, employees, journalists, and others are cowards by comparison. It’s not that we don’t care or take risks, we just take safe ones.
Professional investors rarely put so much money into a company that it will ruin them if they lose it. If they did, they’d be bad investors. But founders? They take those risks all the time.
When you hold yourself up and compare yourself to that person whose startup failed, who you look down from your safety, your arm’s length, your insulating safety net of other people’s money—well you’re fooling yourself if you think you deserve to stand toe to toe with them.
You weren’t willing to risk what she risked. Sure, you have a family, people who depend on you. Your fully myelinated frontal cortex and venerable experience inform you about the obvious line between risk and stupidity.
But she tried to build a company anyway. And starting a company is insane.
Entrepreneurs blind themselves to the risks. Risks like decades-long impact on their financial fortunes, divorce, legal issues, reputational risk, lost friendships, opportunity costs in almost every facet of life. Many embark in total ignorance of the struggle that lies ahead.
But entrepreneurs do it anyway. Because despite the conflict they feel toward their loved ones and the doubts they harbor about themselves it’s just in them.
It’s like the air they breathe. They can’t not do it. And it deserves our respect.
So what’s this got to do with kiais?
The kiai is the perfect metaphor for entrepreneurship.
Kiai is literally translated as energy-join. Ki (Chi or Qi in Chinese) is a deeper concept than just energy though. I like the word spirit. When something is particularly active, full of life, or vibrant we call it spirited.
And join has a deeper connotation too. It’s not just putting two things together. It’s bringing everything together into the focused execution of the yell.
And that’s what entrepreneurs do. They attempt to bring everything together and give it life through consonance in execution.Entrepreneurs attempt to bring everything together and give it life through consonance in execution. We salute you. Click To Tweet
And although this is incredibly hard and most attempts fail, when it works it is a thing of beauty and magnificence and there is just nothing else like it.
Which is why I think those who make the attempt are worthy of our high esteem.
From the safety of our positions of power or influence, from behind the walls of comfort we’ve built for ourselves, from our riskless participation in the ecosystem of entrepreneurship, let’s not imagine that as venture capitalists, service providers, employees, and journalists that we are actually in the arena.
As Roosevelt said,
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
Let us keep those who fail while daring greatly, in a place of respect and honor instead of treating them like the kid who didn’t get picked on the schoolyard.
Read more venture capital tips for founders at 101 Venture Capital Pro Tips.
@chadjardine is the Head of Marketing for @goreact, an edtech startup that makes game film for the classroom. He also teaches graduate courses in venture financing @uutah