Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Olympians and Innovators Share the Same Character Traits

I have to say it: these people are incredible.  They compete on the highest level.  They persevere through every trial and tribulation.  The new ones are constantly trying to find some sponsorships that will allow them to continue on.  They get virtually no attention for years and then they are in the spotlight and often as not, they fizzle. Olympic athletes?  You bet, but the same characteristics describe innovators and entrepreneurs.

As I am watching the Winter Olympics this week, I am struck by the personal characteristics that define people who have an all-encompassing passion to see their dreams materialize.  The Olympic athletes are constantly coming back from horrible injuries, putting in years of drudgery to perfect their abilities, and never, ever, giving up.  That kind of focus is the same thing that drives inventors, innovators, and entrepreneurs.  It is the old aphorism about being a "monomaniac with a mission."

Great athletic performances and great new innovations usually seem to burst on the scene, almost from nowhere.  Few of us see the years of dogged effort, the sweat, and the disappointment that precede that moment of glory.  Athletes that compete at the Olympic level have more than extraordinary self-discipline.  They have a natural gift of "physical intelligence" (body skills) that can be honed to a fine edge.  Innovators and entrepreneurs are also born with nascent talents that can be developed.  Levels of talent vary greatly, of course, in every endeavor.  But those blessed with great talent can do great things with their gifts.

There are talented people who are born into terrible circumstances and never get the chance to fulfill their promise.  One of the figure skaters from France had been adopted by a family after being found abandoned as an infant in the streets of Brazil.  What if he hadn't been abandoned?  Would his talents have been supported?  How many thousands or millions of others have their talents wasted?

When I think about the great innovators that I have studied, they almost always have persevered through one trial and tribulation after another to try to bring their ideas into the world.  John Fitch fought for years to see his idea for a steamboat become a reality.  Thomas Edison has reached almost mythological proportions in his search for the one right filament to make a practical electric lightbulb.  The list of innovators goes on and on.  But they all shared in the quality of perseverance.

Of course, having a single-minded focus is no guarantee of success.  Fitch, for example, finally gave up being rewarded for his steamboat innovations and died in despair and virtually penniless. The recognition he so much wanted came long after his death.  Edison was more fortunate, becoming famous in his own day. Without self-discipline, focus, and drive - the belief that it is possible to bring about real innovation - no great advances ever happen.  Most people dislike change, which gives the status quo tremendous inertia.  Moving that inertia takes smarts and a lot of hard work.

Every four years, as I watch the Winter Olympics, I get inspired all over again by the athletes' performances and their stories. It fills me with hope when I see what dedicated people can accomplish.  I think watching the Olympics should be required viewing for any would-be innovator or entrepreneur.  So should reading the stories of our past innovators and entrepreneurs.

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