Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, July 27, 2020
Are you superstitious?
Liar. Now let’s tell each other the truth. You probably don’t walk under a ladder, you don’t like when a black cat crosses in front of you, you don’t knock on wood (hah), and you try to avoid cracked mirrors. And how many of you have a lucky rabbit’s foot in your pocket or that four-leaf clover in your wallet that was given to you 20 years ago by the woman you ultimately married (or didn’t marry, but wished you had)? And why do high-rise elevators seldom have the number 13 on the panel? I rest my case, your honor.
A key feature of entrepreneurship is the ability to project self-confidence. You need to inspire the investor and your team and have them believe that you can carry them across the river. This is a component of what we call leadership.
Now, stay with me. There is a genuine nexus between real confidence, the real ability to do the job, and a belief in irrational superstition-shamanism-nonsense, with you knowing full well that there is no such thing and that it has no effect on the real world — except:
• Serena Williams will not change her socks once during a tournament.
• Michael Jordan would always wear his UNC shorts under his NBA shorts (not to mention the craziness with his number 23).
• Tiger Woods wears red on Sunday.
• Wade Boggs ate chicken before every game.
• No NASCAR driver ever carries a $50 bill; it is considered bad luck.
• Jason Giambi (Colorado Rockies) wears a gold thong to break out of a slump. (He must have been a fan of the movie “Bull Durham.”)
• Heads come up half the times you toss the penny. Period.
How many of you believe that wearing your team jersey or that stupid backward rally cap can actually affect the outcome of a game — either at the stadium or while you are watching the game on TV in your home? But you do it anyway.
Let’s face it, we are human, and thus, we are not totally, irrefutably rational. Who wants to live with only the hard truth of statistics, with no belief that you can control your world and have some mastery over the forces of the universe? Facing the chasm without your lucky blanket is more than daunting.
Now here is the puzzle. Confidence is a learned skill. You actually did hit the winning shot, you did make the deal with Facebook, the big check actually cleared, you did build the company. But all of us have little secrets, tells and ritualistic beliefs in altered states of consciousness, and even though we know they are not real, they still have the power to affect our behavior and our thinking.
Is there such a thing as a “hot hand” in basketball? This one has been studied repeatedly over the years and the jury is still out insofar as the statistical research. But ask Steph Curry or 30 other NBA stars, and they will tell you that when they “get in the zone,” it creates the illusion of control and taking the shot becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy — swish.
Now if we marry a soupcon of superstition with the mathematical truth of luck as a nonrandom force in nature, you can see that this entrepreneurship game is more than just zeros and ones or figuring out a two-sided marketplace. It is a magical space of fear and courage, a belief in your skill with a private prayer of hope, ending in the wonder that maybe this time …
Now for my own confession. I wear a tiny piece of leather on a gold chain around my neck every day. If I leave it at home, I go back to get it. I am naked without it. Remember, I hold myself out as the teacher of rational man behavior, and I know that thing has no real power. But I wear it — just in case. That is the crazy truth of entrepreneurship. You start a company, there are 20 important decisions to make immediately, the odds are against you, so any edge you can get — even one that is not real and has no power, you should take it. Like I said — just in case.