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Friday Focus: Handle the Pressure and Stay the Course

James Warren November 04, 2014
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Building something new and achieving something for the first time is hard. Just ask any entrepreneur – whether they’re working in a startup or a large, established company. There is no roadmap, there are no best practices and there is a ton of risk on multiple levels. Simply put, “new” is tough.

So, how do you get from here (your present circumstances) to there (the something new that you’re striving for)? In my experience, the answer lies in your ability to withstand the pressure and stay the course.

Let’s talk about pressure for a moment. Imagine being in a submarine, almost 36,000 feet under the surface, surrounded by the deep, surrounded by 15,750 pounds per square inch of pressure. Now imagine that it’s 1960 and it’s the first time anyone – anyone – has ever attempted this. The physical pressure and the mental pressure of the moment would have been astounding. Yet two extraordinarily brave souls, in Jacques Piccard and U.S. Navy Lieutenant Donald Walsh, experienced all of that and became the first members of an extremely small fraternity of humans who have explored the depths of the world’s oceans. This was an entirely new experience. There was zero margin for error, no precedent and no back-up plan – just careful preparation and guts. Indeed, “new” is not for the faint of heart.

There’s no magic formula for being able to handle the pressure of building something new or achieving something for the first time, but I do find there are a couple of traits and experiences that come into play. First, you’ve got to have courage, plain and simple. No one else can give you courage. You have to find it within yourself. Second, you’ve got to have confidence in your abilities. Preparation and practice are the best ways to improve this. Third, you need humility. I would bet a lot of money that Piccard and Walsh didn’t just decide on a whim to get in that sub and descend nearly seven miles to the ocean floor. They respected the danger. They understood the risk. They took nothing for granted, knowing that the slightest mistake could result in a crushing death. But once they determined they were ready, it was time to go. They would learn nothing more staying topside and running simulations. If you’re brave enough, prepared enough, confident enough, and humble enough to embark on something new, then it’s time to get started.

Once you realize you can handle the pressure that comes (and it comes from a lot of different directions, just like it did for those two submariners 54 years ago), then you can persevere and stay the course. Staying the course depends on your ability to know where you’re going in the first place, have the ability to course correct along the way, have a way to reduce risk and recruit people to your expedition. In other words, you need to navigate the journey.

  1. Identify your destination clearly: set a vision. This is so crucial because your vision is what sustains you when the going gets tough. Knowing what you are working towards, fighting for and taking risks for is critically important. Without a vision, you might as well not even get started. It’s that important.
  2. Check to make sure you’re on a course – I call this “prairie dogging.” You might be busy tunneling underground, but every now and then you need to stick your head up, look around and see where you are – and see if there is danger on the horizon.
  3. Reduce risk along the way. The best way I know how to do this is to get and maintain broad perspective from key stakeholders who can help you recognize your blind spots, challenge the holes in your thinking and compensate for your shortcomings.
  4. Recruit for your expedition. Get yourself a couple of cheerleaders. Better yet, have someone besides you throughout the journey. Making your way towards the “new” is tough enough as it is, so don’t go it alone if you can help it. Find someone who shares your belief, shares your passion and shares your vision and team up. You’ll be able to cheer each other through the darkness and loneliness, as I’m sure Piccard and Walsh must have done during their descent into the abyss.

I’m smack in the middle of this journey leading a brand new startup. We are in the concept development stage and there are lots of questions and lots of unknowns. Doubt is freely available for the taking. But the innovator, the entrepreneur, the trailblazer, the astronaut, the pioneer and the submariner all have something in common: the ability to face doubt and determine if it is legitimate and warranted because it signals something is out of whack, or if it is the emotional response that often accompanies being on the edge and far, far away from the comfort zone. There’s nothing reckless about this at all. The ability to process doubt is a must-have to navigate the journey, and balancing skepticism and optimism, as difficult as that may be, is crucial to a successful outcome.

As you think about what you’re trying to build – a new product, a new company or a new career – think about Jacques Piccard and Lieutenant Donald Walsh. Envision your journey the same way they did. Get yourself prepared to withstand the pressure that is certain to come your way, and then stay the course.

Realize you are going to make your own history, and we can’t wait to see you do it.

To learn more about deep-sea exploration, check out this site that is all things Mariana Trench, and National Geographic’s brilliant celebration of 125 years of exploration: Then & Now: Diving in the Mariana Trench.

Photo attribution: “Bathyscaphe Trieste hoisted”. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons


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