It was May 2006 when I went to the IZOD Center to watch the Nets play the Heat at home. It was towards the end of the season but the Nets were on fire with Jason Kidd, Vince Carter, and Richard Jefferson leading the team, while the Heat was on the hunt for redemption from the previous season’s loss in the playoffs. There were a ton of dunks and showmanship. There was a time when Dwyane Wade passed the ball to the ref to set up an inbounds play but the ball ended up hitting the ref in the nuts, causing the entire arena to chuckle. I was just a few rows behind Jay-Z and Beyonce, as tickets to the IZOD Center were significantly cheaper than Knicks tickets and my sister scored a deal on two tickets. I went with my best friend at the time.
But then there was one play where Vince Carter had the rebound and sprinted to the other side of the court with no one on him for a fast break. Everyone held their breaths for a magnificent slam dunk in which only Vinsanity would be capable of doing, only to be let down by a weak and safe layup. The home crowd naturally booed him. He went on to score over 40 points but his team lost to a Heat team with greater depth under head coach Pat Riley.
I’m pretty sure that was the first time I began to think (in my naiveté) about how boring it must be for athletes to execute on some of the more showy moves for the sake of the audience. Even if they are judged primarily on that, they are missing out on being able to watch it themselves and enjoy it as they are too busy thinking of all the technical details to make sure everything is going smoothly.
When I ran shows in college, I didn’t have the sense of whether a show went well or not. I’d have to hear it from others and take their word for it as I was too busy running around making sure everything was going the way they were supposed to be going. Directing and communicating with everyone involved didn’t allow me to watch the show through the eyes of everyone else.
Every time I watched sports, particularly the X Games, I had trouble appreciating the show because I tried to empathize with the athletes trying to put on a show for the audience; doing their best to make the moves appear as seamless as possible, when it required much strength and finesse to execute.
A few weeks ago, my coworker, Jordan Lampe, whom I’d known since before officially joining Dwolla but never had a chance to actually hang out with, took me surfing—something that I’d wanted to learn for quite a bit, more so this year than ever before. Jordan, admittedly, is not an expert in it yet; he’s still a novice. The waves were pitiful, and my performance was even worse. Yet an hour that consisted of mainly lying on a board floating in the water quickly passed by and though I stood less than a handful of times, learning the science of it was the most fascinating part. Constantly trying to read the waves and understand how to ride it while trying to balance on a piece of wood was actually the fun of it.
The exhilarating feeling of trying to surf stuck with me and I can’t wait to find the time to get back on the board again. But it was that feeling that really changed my mind about athletes. The adrenaline you get from making the most of those few short seconds to execute something beautiful is the thrill of it. It’s more exciting for the athlete than the audience. Sure it’s extremely difficult and requires a ridiculous amount of hard work. But those few seemingly short-lived moments between the artist and her instrument become a profound secret between the two that no one else can take away.
This is why startup people glorify their work. At least the people I know. There’s a thrill in not just executing but executing the right way. Creating something is great. But the process of creating in the most optimal way possible is what’s worth obsessing over. The most genuine and the smartest people in startups are completely aware that most startups fail. Yet they are the first ones to run into problems and tear down roadblocks. There is no appreciation in the final work without going through the execution. Otherwise it’s just a fun app or an interesting product. Nothing more. Producing what is needed and adding a brick to construct a vision into reality is what allows people to do the fun stuff and the dirt work.
It’s only through deep immersion in the work that makes the artist able to stand back and see the final result as appreciable, beautiful, and personal.