The resilience of Maro Itoje offers a lesson for all startup entrepreneurs

Luke Cowan-Dickie’s try and Dan Biggar’s boot helped The British & Irish Lions stage a stunning second-half comeback to beat the Springboks in the first Test in Cape Town on SaturdaySouth Africa showed their world champion pedigree in the first half as Handrè Pollard capitalised on the Lions’ indiscipline by kicking four penalties to put the hosts 12-3 ahead.

The Lions got their hands on the ball early on and signalled their intent, Tom Curry was industrious, but gave away penalties, and after a breathless opening quarter the Springboks exerted scoreboard pressure, kicking twelve points after dominating possession. But in the first meeting between the two sides in twelve years, the tourists wrestled back momentum. Replacement Owen Farrell sealed a famous 22-17 victory with a further three points late on to put the Lions 1-0 up in the three-test series.

The breakdown battle was always going to be decisive and both sides flexed their muscles, Itoje was a colossus in the first half, stealing the ball from De Klerk before enjoying his first significant arm wrestle with the imposing Eben Etzebeth, and after Biggar claimed the Lions’ first points, Itoje was at it again as he executed a trademark jackal to secure the ball back for the Lions.

The Springboks completely changed their front row for the restart as the infamous ‘Bomb Squad’ arrived but it was the Lions who made the early physical statement, and on their third visit to the Springbok 22 Cowan-Dickie crashed over from a driving maul. The Springboks kept on coming, but with the penalty count rising and the momentum in the tourists’ favour, the Lions took the lead for the first time just after the hour as their physical driving maul paid dividends: Biggar kicked the penalty.

Both Itoje and Lawes delivered superb performances. Itoje won three turnovers, made ten tackles and proved a constant nuisance, capping off his Player of the Match display by securing the ball back at the death as the Lions’ defended heroically. Lawes also made ten tackles, eight carries and a turnover during his 73 minutes while captain Alan Wyn-Jones, having recovered from dislocating his shoulder less than a month ago, contributed ten tackles. It summed up a monumental second-half display from the men in red.

Maro Itoje v Eben Etzebeth was the duel to behold. Etzebeth is about brute-force aggression, a classic second-row, enormous biceps and bristling confrontation, a formidable ball-carrier and dominant presence in the tight exchanges. Itoje is a more calculated menace, capable of disrupting the opposition at every turn and always described by opponents as a nuisance. Itoje’s long limbs and ability to swim through the bodies to clamp on to the ball is a key skill. The heartbeat of Saturday’s physical battle was here.

The Lions played poorly in the first half, and then came back possessed to dominate, to come home in style. The Springboks were undercooked, they will improve. The Lions’ pack in the second half, with Kyle Sinckler, Mako Vunipola and Ken Owens standing strong, took the Boks to the cleaners in driving mauls and scrums. South Africa were unlucky with some of their scores correctly ruled out on small knock-ons. Faf de Klerk was well corralled, and even though Lukhanyo Am and Damian de Allende were powerhouses, the Boks were simply blowing hard and could not come back at the end.

The Lions produced a great second forty minutes that had us shouting and screaming in our front room Saturday afternoon, refreshed with a copious supply of hotdog sausages and IPA. In the second half the Lions did not give away any penalties, and they were kicking for corners to score tries. They also realised in the second half they could put it through the hands, rather than trying to kick the leather off it and beat South Africa at their own game. The tension of being ahead in the final minutes with just a try score apart, the relentless tackles making you grab your own ribs and wince, it was simply a truly great game of rugby.

Maro Itoje had the game of his life – again – but that does not tell you the half of it. He was a one-man highlights reel. You kept catching glimpses of him, forcing his way through the maul to reach over and wrap his hands around the ball to stop De Klerk snapping it out, soaring into the air at the lineout to grab the ball from Mostert, charging into half a gap, bent double over a tackled man, rooting around with his hands till he pulled up the ball, like some frenzied prospector digging around for the gold nugget he had spotted in the river mud.

Around twenty minutes into the second half, the camera zoomed in on Itoje, getting his breath back at a lineout, chest was heaving, lungs gulping, but the eyes… well, the eyes were something else. They were wide open and staring, bearing an expression that simultaneously implied total aggression and total stillness. He did not blink. Itoje was in the zone of complete focus, the moment of concentration and clarity.

This was his greatest performance in a Lions shirt, in attack and defence, better than in the second test versus the All Blacks in 2017, in open play and at the set piece, in its bravery, discipline, ingenuity and skill. To get a measure of his impact, look at his opposite numbers – Eben Etzebeth and Siya Kolisi – were a fraction of their imposing best. These are greats of the game, World Cup winners with 200 international caps between them. Itoje made them look like statues. To be the man, you’ve got to beat the man, Itoje said last week.

The menace and verve of Springbok’s potent team was nullified. He gave a technical and tactical masterclass, his performance forged through continuous breakthroughs, small steps, and iterations, each possible because he had his eyes and ears wide open in the moment, with the resilience and mindset to keep going. Putting to one side his rugby skills, it was the resilience shown by Itoje to simply keep going that stood out for me. It is the virtue that enables entrepreneurs to move through their own battles and achieve success. If we have the virtue of resilience, then we can move forward, whatever the challenge.

Many misunderstand what’s at work in resilience. For me, it’s not about ‘bouncing back’, rather its about the ability to integrate harsh experiences into your thinking, learn and apply the lessons, and then be motivated to go again, expecting to go one better, as Thomas Edison said, I have not failed. I have just found ten thousand ways that won’t work.

Like Itoje, entrepreneurs consciously choose a life of challenge, yearning success whilst also inevitably encountering times marked by sheer graft, chaos, and disappointment. Entrepreneurial endeavour is a series of higher highs and lower lows, in which the peaks and troughs are more vivid, but as Sir Edmund Hilary said, People do not decide to become extraordinary. They decide to accomplish extraordinary things, and he should know.

Ryan Holiday, in his book The Obstacle Is The Way, draws lessons from philosophy and history and says if you want to achieve anything in life, you must do the work, be prepared for knockbacks – but most of all, be resilient. It’s a great book, inspiring us to be bolder and mentally able to handle the pressure of running a startup.

Here are some quotes from Holiday, which I think say a lot about building your resilient mindset, and could have been written about Itoje on Saturday.

No one is asking you to look at the world through rose-coloured glasses. See the world for what it is. Not what you want it to be or what it should be. Hey, we’re back to being realistic – but it’s also about optimism, the mindset to expect the best outcome from every situation – and that’s resilience to make it happen. This gives entrepreneurs the capacity to pivot from a failing tactic and implement actions to increase success.

Where the head goes, the body follows. Right action follows the right perspective. When something happens, you decide what it means. Is it the end? Or the time for a new start? Is it the worst thing that has ever happened to you? Or is it just a setback? You have the decision to choose how you perceive every situation in life.

I can’t afford to panic. Some things make us emotional, but you must keep your emotions in check and balanced. In every situation, no matter how bad it is, keep calm and try to find a solution. Sometimes the best solution is walking away. Entrepreneurs find it hard to say no, but that can be the best option.

If you want momentum, you’ll have to create it yourself, by getting up and getting started. If you want anything from life, you must start moving towards it. Only action will bring you closer. Start now, not tomorrow. Maintain optimism,observing how others were successful in similar situations, and believing you can do the same. It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.

It’s okay to be discouraged. It’s not okay to quit. Entrepreneurial life is competitive. When you think life is hard know that it’s supposed to be hard. If you get discouraged, try another angle until you succeed. Every attempt brings you one step closer. Don’t have a victim’s mindset, have courage to take decisive action. Great entrepreneurs become tenaciously defiant when told they cannot succeed. Then they get it done.

The path of least resistance is a terrible teacher. Don’t shy away from difficulty. Don’t do things just because they’re easy. Nurture yourself: gain strength from the unrealistic achievements of others. Successful, resilient entrepreneurs don’t just accept what happens to them. It’s all fuel that you can use to move forward. It defines you.

Itoje will tell you, you get tackled, you’re hurt, you’re down and the play is now twenty-five metres away. Resilience means getting right back in the game, remaining optimistic in the face of adversity. Resilience is accepting your new reality, take a step forward when others sit there watching.

Itoje is the essence of persistence, resilience, and mental toughness, so take a leaf out of his book. Give it everything, every day, be the last man standing when something needs to be done. Never be outworked. Hold yourself responsible for a higher standard than anybody else expects of you. Be a hard master to yourself. The human capacity for burden is like bamboo, far more flexible than you’d ever believe at first glance.

Enormous South African players running ono the pitch, then the physicality of what they bring, stirs the soul and the pit of your belly, it doesn’t intimidate. That is why you want to play in these games. You do not want to play because it is a stroll in the park and you are going to win 30-0. You want to test yourself to the max and that is what the Lions will get against South Africa next Saturday when you can guarantee Itoje will turn up for sure: either you are the type of player where the hairs are up on the back of your neck and you are ready to fight, or you are not.

The Lions brings out certain individuals that just fill the jersey, it triggers something in them. Itoje played like a man possessed, he was just epic, he played an absolutely incredible game, the stamina, the resilience, he just never let up. Itoje decided he wasn’t going to be outplayed, outsmarted, outmuscled. Make sure you take a lesson from him for your own entrepreneurial endeavours.

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