Surviving Game 7

Toby is the CEO and Co-Founder of Kapost, the leading software platform for B2B content marketing. He is also a Washington Capitals fan and a Duke alum — all of which shine through in this post. Toby carries the distinction of being the only entrepreneur who I have ever invested in and played hockey with (a short-lived dynasty in the local YMCA Men’s League). He has written on the Blue Note Blog before, and I’m thrilled to have him back.

– Chris

I’ve been watching the recently completed Washington Capitals – NY Rangers NHL playoff series (I’m from Washington and a Caps fan). The Rangers won (cheers Mark Solon) in seven games, winning the final game in overtime. Analysts pointed out that it was the only playoff series in NHL history that went to overtime in game 7, and had all 7 games decided by only one goal. It was, they argued, the closest playoff series in NHL hockey history.

What’s most intriguing about hockey is the extent to which players don’t control the outcome. Hockey is played on ice, so you can only control the puck so much, even at the highest level. Furthermore, the goals are tiny and filled by giant, talented goalies. So much of the outcome is determined by how the puck bounces.

Yet amidst that chaos, players play full tilt in 60 second shifts and do all they can to get the puck in the other team’s net and keep it out of theirs. The effort put forth by professionals in the playoffs is a sight to behold.

Given this investment of effort, the losses, particularly in the playoffs, have the potential to be devastating. I think this is particularly true in hockey, where team A can out play team B, but given the bouncing puck, the ice, the small nets and the big goalies, team B might still win. By one goal. Back and forth over seven games.

I watched and read many player interviews from both games during the series, and I was struck by the extent to which both teams consistently spoke about forgetting about the last game–win or lose–and moving on to the next. It was a constant refrain. It was clearly the best way the players could manage their minds through the process of intense exertion in this chaotic game.

Hockey players are not alone in this approach. It echoes Duke’s Coach K who exhorts his players to always focus on the next play and let go of the prior one, whether it was good or bad. Outside the world of sports, I hear this same mantra coming from Eastern philosophy, specifically Eckhart Tolle, author of The Power of Now. Tolle writes of how life exists only in the present moment, so that excessively focusing on the past (or the future) deprives us of our ability to impact life (and generally makes us miserable).

I have always had a mindset in running Kapost, the business where I serve as CEO, that I have total responsibility for the company’s performance. In building our start-up, we have had our share of progress and setbacks. When the setbacks hit, I’ve had a habit of dwelling on them: replaying the mistakes, regretting the wrong turns, obsessing on how I could gain control of the underperforming component of the business, punishing myself for the shortcoming. I felt if I didn’t obsess, I wasn’t doing my job.

But I am coming to see, through philosophers, through hockey players and through my own experience, how misguided that approach has been. Of course there is always something to learn from failure. After doing so, one has to release it and move forward.

Playoff hockey can be exasperating. The chaos of the bounces, the ice, the goalies: it can’t all be controlled. Players have learned that remaining attached to past setbacks burdens their ability to perform at the highest level going forward. To be dedicated to excellence, they need to have their minds and energy focused on the next play, and must release their prior games, whether wins or losses.

Start-up business can be exasperating too. Hundreds of customers, thousands of users, thousands of prospects, dozens of employees, partners and competitors. As an entrepreneur, I must take full ownership of my business, but I cannot control all of the elements of my business’ ecosystem. Progress and setbacks will come and go. Holding on to either is foolish and is not fulfilling my obligation as a leader. That obligation is best served by focusing more on what I can do next, freeing my mind and my energy to focus on what I can actually effect: the present moment.