When you work in startup land, you spend quite a bit of time in co-working spaces, innovation labs and accelerator cohorts. One thing that is common to all of these spaces are the motivational quotes.
These inspirations are pasted on walls and stairs and pillars. They come from artists, writers and Silicon Valley demi-gods. “An entrepreneur is someone who jumps off a cliff and builds a plane on the way down!” is one such bold font statement. I am not quite sure what that quote is supposed to inspire. Always carry plane parts with you? Was this person pushed off a cliff or did they jump? If they were pushed, maybe they need to look at their leadership and interpersonal skills a bit more than than entrepreneurial drive? If they choose to jump, wouldn’t they have prepared something easier than having to ‘build a fucking plane‘? A parachute perhaps? Was there no well worn wilderness path to walk back down what ever cliff you were on? Or would that be too ‘safe’ – not risky enough – not very ‘entrepreneur’ is it?
In homage to these ‘motivational’ quotes and stories – I am going to tell you one of my own. It’s a story about an elephant – two elephants in particular.
For a very long time I had one real regret in life. It was the day I was too scared to ride an elephant.
A long time ago my parents took myself and my brother to the circus. Before the circus began the trainers were walking the elephants around the three rings and were offering rides to children in the audience. My parents walked us up to the line. My father took my hand and I looked up at him and up at the very large elephant and shook my head. ‘No, please, I don’t want to’, I said. (I must have been around four years old). My brother got in the box on top of the elephant, with a few other children, and were taken on a slow ride around the tent. When my heart stopped pounding, and I saw how calm and gentle the ride was, I looked back at my father and said ‘OK, I will have a ride now.’ Unfortunately, the circus was about to start. No more rides. I had lost my chance. I had been too scared to take a five minute ride on the back of a elephant at a travelling circus.
That story stayed with me for some time. I often get described as ‘brave’ or confident or strong. My mother once commented that she never would have been brave enough to just up and move to New York, to become a journalist or to pack my 25 year old self on a Virgin Atlantic flight to London, with no idea if I would ever be coming back.
‘Yes,’ I would think to myself, ‘but I never got on that elephant. I was too scared.’
A few years ago, my family took a holiday to Thailand. We stayed in a resort where you could walk into the pool straight from your room. The pool bar sold frozen margaritas and salty chips – I was in heaven. Our son was playing with the usual rabble of multinational children he tended to corral on these types of holidays – ‘This is Dora, she’s from Finland, and this is Patrick and he’s from New Zealand and this is Imran, he’s Indian…’ and so on. My husband walked up to my sun lounger. “I’m going to find our son, I’ve booked us an excursion.”
‘Will I be back for my 4:00 o’clock frozen margarita’ I asked?
‘I am sure of it,” he said (my husband knows me well)
The excursion was at an elephant sanctuary, where you could take a ride on an elephant.
The three of us walked down a dirt path in the jungle, my husband handed over some money to the people running the ‘elephant ride for tourists’ establishment and we waited for a giant animal to arrive. The elephant was led up to a scaffold platform, where we were standing, making it very easy to step onto the seat secured on its back.
Let me just say, I use the term ‘secured’ loosely. The seat was basically a cardboard box, tied with a piece of string, around the pachyderm. Also let me just preface the rest of this story by saying, I was not wary of the elephant. He or she looked calm and gentle. What was causing me pause was the box, and the anticipation of the 20 min jungle hike while hanging onto plywood. I need you all to understand that before I continue.
Our son looked at me (he was 9) and sat in the box. ‘Are you coming Mummy?’ – meaning ‘you better be coming Mummy, because I am not going without you.’ I put my right foot in the box, keeping my left foot on the platform.
Just then I knew. I wasn’t going to ride that elephant.
Sitting by a pool in a five star resort drinking margaritas and salty chips? That, I like. Petrified I am going to fall off a two ton animal in the middle of the jungle? I’ll take a pass. I shook my head and stepped off the elephant.
That was all it took for our son – he wasn’t eager to take this ride either. My refusal was all he needed to jump back on the platform. I apologized to my husband and we went back to the hotel.
What can we make of this ‘motivational’ story? Were my dreams big enough to scare me? Did I build myself a plane as I fell off an elephant?
My husband gave me a great gift that day. I didn’t ride the elephant because I was afraid or lacked imagination. I chose not to ride that elephant, because I didn’t have to. I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to at four years old, and I made the same choice almost 40 years later.
My ‘regret’ vanished.
See, the thing is I wanted to be a journalist from the age of nine. That happened. I was a journalist for 20 years.
I wanted to travel. I have navigated the Tokyo subway with a huge suitcase and a kite (don’t ask) by myself. I’ve bartered with a market stall owner for a leather jacket in broken Italian in Rome and managed a meager meal with pointing and hand gestures in China. I have spoken about EU banking regulations to conference halls filled with men in dark suits and explained the changing ecosystem of FinTech startups to room full of risk managers.
Bravery is not a motivational story or a quote. It is how you life your life.
I no longer regret never choosing to sit on the back of an actual elephant, because I realized I was already standing on top of it.