I became a venture capitalist over nine years ago, leaving my entrepreneurial career at the ripe age of 32. At the time, I had been an entrepreneur for ten years across three companies, and felt helping start Flybridge Capital represented an exciting opportunity to team with a few friends to create a new kind of venture capital firm. Equally compelling for me was the challenge of personal reinvention – pushing myself out of my comfort zone to learn a completely new operating model and face a new set of challenges.
I was reflecting on this as I read the fanfare over the last few weeks about former Red Sox All-Star pitcher Curt Schilling releasing his inaugural game, the Kingdoms of Amalur. Talk about personal transformation! Schilling retired from over 20 years in professional baseball to become a start-up entrepreneur, forming his gaming company, 38 Studios, in 2006. I documented his transformation in a Harvard Business School case study called Curt's Next Pitch, along with my friend and colleague Professor Noam Wasserman.
The launch of the Kingdoms of Amalur an amazing accomplishment. Schilling has had to figure out a completely new blueprint for operating in the world of technology start-ups. He joked with me when we were working on the case that much of his language had to be relearned – for example, "burn rate" used to be a good thing, representing how fast your heater sped towards the plate at the batter.
You don't have to be a World Series MVP to appreciate the difficulty in personal transformations. It's something I see entrepreneurs struggling with all the time – sometimes they are trying to transfer their skills from one industry into another, other times they are trying to adjust to the new phases of their business – from inception to adolesence to more mature, scaling issues.
Here are a few general lessons I've observed that are patterns of successful efforts towards personal reinvention:
- Don't be afraid to ask for help – and even risk looking dumb. People who have achieved great success in one field become very proud of those achievements. It is hard to take a step back and recognize that you need help to learn a new blueprint in the new field. And sometimes finding people who you feel safe with – and able to ask the most basic, dumb questions – can be of great help. Schilling sought out gaming executives from the very beginning who could mentor him and teach him the ropes and was never afraid to "start with the basics". I remember struggling through all new concepts and modes of operation during my first year or two as a venture capitalist and leaning on my partners as well as mentors from other firms – and, importantly, swallowing my pride when doing so. Too many folks get stuck dwelling on their past accomplishments rather than pushing forward into new fields. As Ulysses says: "Pride hath no other glass to show itself, but pride." In computer science terms, you would call that a "doom loop"!
- Understand your personal strengths and weaknesses – and how they fit in the new model. Many entrepreneurs do not conduct enough deep self-reflection. They may have the intellectual firepower to analyze the criteria for success in the new field, but lack the emotional IQ to appreciate how their own skills map. What are your top three core strengths that make you special and unique? What are the three things that your spouse or parents would say are your biggest faillings that you need to work on? And how do these relate to the new field? Delver deeply into who you are and how you operate, and then you will be better positioned to undergo the personal reinvention required ot tackle the new field. Jerry Colonna has a nice guest post on the topic of "learning to lead yourself" on Fred Wilson's blog.
- Mantain the core success attributes – have the right, flexible mindset. No matter what field you are tackling, there are an obvious set of core attributes that help individuals achieve success. In the context of changing fields, the most important arguably is the importance of avoiding rigid thinking. Don't keep applying the same blueprint and remaining stuck on a particular approach to company-buidling. Instead, concentrate your energy on the growth and change required to make the adjustments to the new domain. Stanford researcher Carol Dweck's book, Mindset, is a nice summary of the approach that successful people take when facing new challenges. She observes that those that are able to achieve consistent success across fields have the following attributes:
- A passion for learning
- A passion for stretching themselves
- Avoid dwelling on how great they are, but instead focus on getting better
- Surround yourself with people that will challenge and push you
These are the lessons for personal reinvention and facing new challenges. Over the course of six tough years in launching and building his company, Curt Schilling appears to have figured this out. Will you?