Professional sports have a funny way of permeating other aspects of our lives. It’s no surprise really for the loyal fan — we’re watching experts at their craft push themselves physically, mentally, and emotionally to win the elusive championship ring at the other end of that effort. We are taught many lessons, among them leadership, endurance, sacrifice and teamwork. Our favorite athletes become our role models, and inspire the next generation to pursue greatness.
Growing up in Los Angeles, no single athlete embodied that will to win more than Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers. Love him or hate him, Kobe has undoubtedly influenced the current generation of NBA players with his “Mamba Mentality,” a phrase he coined to describe a personal and unrelenting focus on self-betterment as a means of achieving success. It’s the killer instinct. Outside factors such as competition or physical exhaustion only fueled Kobe to win more basketball games.
While my own “hoop dreams” may have faded over the years, I’ve found what separates good from great talent in every startup I’ve worked for is the existence of the Mamba Mentality.
Startup life is often glamorized in mainstream media, where notions of unicorns and billionaire founders cloud the reality of late nights and uncertain futures. Our CEO at Gainsight, Nick Mehta, wrote a highly relevant post a few years ago that addresses the myths that often lead the ambitious to a career in Silicon Valley as follows:
So would you be willing to trade money and credentials for a bunch of stuff that can’t be quantified and probably won’t turn into anything monetary? If not, it’s probably best to stick to the big company rivers and lakes that you’re used to.
You have to dig really deep to be great at a startup. Your motivation must come from a consistent desire to win and the ability to push yourself to achieve that next milestone with every outside force working against you. Your competition — motivation. Your missed sales quarter — learning. Those who possess the Mamba Mentality get promoted while those who do not fly below the radar and are eventually managed out.
There are plenty of established companies that provide a quality of life far more comfortable than that of startups — higher pay, better benefits, and the ability at the end of the day to leave your work at the office. Why subject yourself to the strain of working for a startup if you don’t bring that killer instinct to the office every day?
Maybe the Mamba Mentality is not something that comes natural. At many startups — especially those of us in enterprise software — finding fulfillment in our jobs isn’t as obvious as for those working on mega problems with social missions. So how can you trigger the Mamba Mentality for yourself or look for the signs in your team?
Here are concrete pointers from Mr. Bryant himself.
1. Believe. The moment you lose faith in the company, team, management or mission, you’re out of the game. It all starts with a fundamental belief that what you’re working on is meaningful and that your contribution to the effort is moving the needle. If despite all efforts you cannot find motivation beyond a paycheck, go find something else.
“Imagination is the most important part. That’s where it starts. They have to believe.”
2. Identify & Name Your Weaknesses. There’s a level of self-awareness present in all great startup execs — understanding what you’re good at and having enough humility, yet confidence to admit where you fall short. Identifying your weaknesses is a powerful step towards cognitive alignment and self-betterment. You can find a lieutenant to balance out gaps in expertise — think a right brain marketer who hires a data-driven growth hacker. You can also proceed to step three and put in the work to convert weakness into strength. The great ones do both.
3. Practice, Practice, Practice. Working hard, in and out of the office, to turn your weaknesses into strengths encompasses the spirit of the Mamba Mentality. It’s fueled by the personal belief that what you’re doing every day fundamentally matters. You’ve labeled areas of improvement, now comes the difficult task of finding bandwidth to take action on them. In the startup world, some tackle this effort by finding mentors in their community and creating accountable relationships. Others wake up an extra hour earlier to read books or blog posts. Whatever your strategy, reach out, wake up, study up and get yourself to that next level. Most startups will not afford you the luxury to learn the skills during your work hours, but rather, to implement your changes, practice relentlessly, and measure the effect.
“The best advice I can give is practice really, really hard, work together and identify what your weaknesses are and work to make those your strength.”
I don’t know where you’re at, but if you’re like me, sometimes you need to remember *why* you’ve chosen your line of work. What do you want to be when you grow up? That question was always loaded with so much pressure — but just because you grew up doesn’t mean the pressure goes away. It comes, either frequently or infrequently, and questions your need to get to the office that early or make that many phone calls.
Undoubtedly the pressure will come — you’ll need the Mamba Mentality to get you through.