Last week I attended the Gazelles Growth Summit organized by my friend Verne Harnish. In a roster of amazing speeches, one that still rings in my ears was that of Bob Parsons, the founder of GoDaddy, who revealed for us the strategic value of a near-death experience.
The ancient samurai used to say goodbye to their families before battle. Having accepted death, they fought with focus, not distracted by thoughts of going home.
Great innovators, I have found, often walk through a similar ritual just before their final battle. Having survived uneven odds, now facing imminent failure, they look dispassionately at failure and make the choice to finish the job.
Parson shared at least two such brushes with death of his own. The first was a literal one: he was a soldier, he and his team found themselves in an impossible situation, and he was sure he was going to die that day. Once he accepted death, he fought and survived.
The second moment he mentioned happened in Hawaii. He had sold a previous company for $60 million, and had spent his wealth building GoDaddy. His wealth fell to $25 million, then $15 million. With just $6 million left, he decided to take a retreat and consider whether he should give in.
He took a trip by himself to Hawaii and decided to quit while he still had money. He worked out how he would divide what was left: pay off creditors, give employees bonuses, and squirrel away a little for himself.
After checking out, about to head home, waiting outside his hotel for his car, he noticed one of the valets. He was about Parsons’ age. He was smiling and joking. He seemed to love his work.
This valet changed Parsons’ perspective and thereby his life. Parson thought, “If GoDaddy fails, I’ll just park cars.” It didn’t seem that bad a life after all.
He threw out his plans and calculations and decided to go for it. Now GoDaddy commands something like 60% of its market in the U.S. and is worth 100 times or more than the $6 million Parson fretted over.
The lesson here is to look death in the face and make your choice. Let yourself ponder the worst-case scenario. Without growing defensive or shifting to survival mode, think through what would happen if you failed horribly.
I did this recently myself. I was making some tough choices about how much to invest in my new book launch. It was not quite a “bet it all” situation, but it sure felt like it. Wouldn’t I be better off playing it safe?
Then I thought coldly, honestly, clinically about failure. I realized it would not be as bad as I feared and that there were a few simple things I could do to reduce the downside risk.
Then I decided to go all in.
How you approach the pivotal decision along your path, I believe, determines the scale of impact you will have on the world. And the greater risk at such decision points is not usually exposing yourself to the risk of failure; the greatest risk is running away blindly from an outcome you have not fully contemplated. It only takes 10 minutes. Do it now. Write it down. What would failure really look like?
[Image: Flickr user AKBAN]