In recent years, there have been dozens of studies about the qualities that make for a brilliant entrepreneur. While the terminology tends to vary from researcher to researcher, four traits show up consistently: drive, creativity, appetite for risk, and social intelligence.
Concurrently, there’s been a pretty thorough nature versus nurture debate surrounding these traits. Are they teachable? Are they not? If so, how?
In 2004, on an airplane over China, Danny Way glances out the window, sees the Great Wall and decides—sort of on the spot—he wants to jump a skateboard over it.
He mentions this desire to his companions, they mention he is out of his mind.
Danny Way is a lot of things, out of his mind not among them. He is a skateboarder, considered one of the greatest in history. His resume is ferocious: won his first content at age 11, was twice Thrasher Magazine’s Skater of the Year, five time X Game gold medalist, six time X Game podium finisher, and seven time world record breaker (if you haven’t seen the trailer for Waiting for Lightning, the excellent and soon-to-be-released Way documentary, prepare for mind-blowing).
Way is also considered one of the most progressive skaters around—and he’s been around for a while. Three decades in fact. Skateboarding is extremely cutting edge and relentlessly creative. Style counts for a lot. Innovation for more. And skating is a game of failure—so innovation comes with consequences. To be able to ride that wave for almost thirty years speaks volumes about Way’s commitment to innovation.
That said, in the early 2000s, that commitment took a turn for the peculiar. Most skaters feel the vert ramp is their playground, for Way, it had started to feel like a cage. He wanted to go bigger. He wanted to know what was possible.
So Way started sketching ramps on napkins. Huge Ramps. Ramps so huge they looked more like outtakes from surrealistic paintings than anything anyone would ever ride a skateboard down.
I’m not kidding. The first mega ramp was built in 2002. A true beast. Longer than a football field. A gargantuan gap jump followed by an enormous quarter pipe. “It was like three times the size of anything I had ever seen in skateboarding,” pro-Australian rider Jake Brown told the New York Times. “It was crazy. It still is crazy.”
It was also expensive. Early designs cost between $75,000 and $100,000. “Every time we built one,” says Ken Block, co-founder of DC Shoes (one of Way’s main sponsors), “there was always a meeting where everyone went: ‘Wow, that’s a lot of money, this damn thing better work.’”
This was an even bigger issue after Way decided to jump the Great Wall. The price tag on that dream was north of $500,000. And getting permission to jump China’s national treasure? As you can imagine, the paperwork, it was downright communist.
The results though, they were considerable: Literally built atop the Great Wall, an 80 foot roll in (the size of a Olympic ski jump) gives way to a 70 foot gap jump which drops into the largest quarter-pipe (32 feet tall) ever constructed. Coming into that quarterpipe, Way will be moving 55 mph; coming out, he’ll be sailing almost 70 feet above the deck. An error up there, it’s the same as falling off a six story building.
And here’s the thing, skaters make errors. “Innovation in skating is a game of failure,” says Way. “That’s what makes this sport so different. Skaters are willing to take a great deal of physical punishment. We’ll try something endlessly, weeks on end, painful failure after painful failure after painful failure.”
And this bring us to why this is my favorite story of commitment to innovation: product testing.
The last time someone tried to jump the Great Wall of China was a mountain bike rider in 2002. Shoddy ramp design sent him over the landing pad and into the side of a mountain. He died a few hours later from massive internal injuries.
Knowing all of that, on July 12, 2005, Danny Way still had to climb ten flights of stairs and stand on a platform over a hundred feet above the ground and test the ramp for the first time.
On a certain level, he was doing what every successful entrepreneur does: he had a vision. He raised start up cash. He built his product. And then, he went one more step, one step that no other innovator in recent memory has taken: Danny Way literally bet his life on his vision.
And it almost costs him his life.
The ramp is too small. Way trained in the desert where the air was considerably thinner. In China, it was far too dense. So he under-jumps the gap, pancakes into ramp, and rag dolls down the landing. His ACL is torn, his ankle broken, his foot swollen to the size of a cabbage. He is rushed to the hospital but walks out before treatment—not wanting to know the extent of the damage.
And while he was gone, construction workers get busy. They add 12 additional feet to the roll in. This means, if Way decides to try again, it’ll be another first descent.
“Most people say they want to be innovative,” says Travis Pastrana, one of the best motocross riders in the world, “but those who are serious, who are committed, well that doesn’t mean just once in a while. It means down in your soul. To really commit to innovation, to progress, that’s daily work, it’s a way of thinking, it’s what Danny Way is truly great at.”
So, of course, Way tries again. Take a second look at the photo that opens this article—that little splotch of red in the center: that’s Danny Way, with a shattered limb, becoming the first person to jump the Great Wall of China on a skateboard. That’s what I mean by the habit of ferocity.
Want to really succeed as an entrepreneur? Want to really be able execute as an innovator. Creativity, drive, risk, social intelligence for sure—but daily and ferocious and always as if your life depended on it.
*There has been enormous progress in action sports lately. Tremendous innovation. Deep creativity. Enormous risk taking. All the components that make for a great entrepreneur. In the following few blogs (tune in next week), I’ll be exploring this theme at length.
Appetite for risk, for example, seems to be 50 percent genetic, and 50 percent a learned process. But, as I explored in a recent blog about the work of neuroscientist Barbara Sahakian, if this behavior is to be learned, it may have to be learned early. After the age of 27, it may literally be too late to change.
Creativity and social intelligence have also been tough nuts to crack, but here too there’s been some progress. In their recent book, The Innovator’s DNA, Harvard’s Clayton Christenson (the author of the still popular The Innovator’s Dilemma) and BYU’s Jeff Dyer make the case that five key skills that help foster these traits. Moreover, according to their eight years of research, cultivating these skills is exactly what distinguishes innovative entrepreneurs and executives from ordinary managers:
Here’s their list:
Associating—drawing connections between questions, problems, or ideas from unrelated fields.
Questioning—posing queries that challenge common wisdom.
Observing—scrutinizing the behavior of customers, suppliers, and competitors to identify new ways of doing things.
Networking—meeting people with different ideas and perspectives.
Experimenting—constructing interactive experiences and provoking unorthodox responses to see what insights emerge.
Now, certainly, what Dyer and Christensen are really saying is keep an open mind, encounter new ideas, and ask good questions—but their work goes deeper than the obvious.
As they explain: “Most of us think creativity is an entirely cognitive skill; it all happens in the brain. A critical insight from our research is that one’s ability to generate innovative ideas is not merely a function of the mind, but also a function of behaviors. This is good news for us all because it means that if we change our behaviors, we can improve our creative impact.”
For would be innovators this is good news. It means that there are starting to be sound behavioral fixes for psychological short-comings. But what’s lost in all this research is a critical point. These skills can’t be added on, like icing on a cake, they have to be baked in. What is lost in all this academic research is, for lack of a better phrase, the habit of ferocity, a constant commitment to cajones, what University of Pennsylvania psychologist, Dr. Angela Duckworth, terms “grit.”
Grit is defined as “passion and perseverance for long term goals.” In a series of six studies, Duckworth found that grit, even more than “intelligence,” is the best predictor of high achievement. By way of explanation let me tell you my favorite story of innovation: the tale of Danny Way.