Inject Owen Farrell’s self-belief into your startup founder mindset

On my only visit to Japan, I visited the onsen, the Japanese hot springs that are a cherished tradition on island of Kyushu. They are an intimidating prospect for the first-time bather. There are many cultural traditions to uphold: tattoos are a big no-no, washing yourself is frowned upon, no towels, and wearing swimming trunks will offend.

In the onsen, you go naked, or you go home. I found this the most difficult custom to uphold, being largely unaccustomed to sitting around stark naked amidst other people with more confidence than me with their full nakedness on display.

And so ultimately, there are two ways of approaching the experience. You can negotiate it with a tentative squeamishness, a hyper-awareness of one’s own bashfulness. Or you can simply march out of the changing rooms, whip off your towel, and slide impeccably into the steaming pool, a spring in your step and keep your eyes looking straight ahead. Smiling.

So, I was delighted that my own bravado in Kyushu all those years ago was matched by Owen Farrell and England on Sunday at the Stade Velodrome, Marseille as they reached the Rugby World Cup Semi Final with a jittery 30-24 victory over Fiji. It was an awesome team effort, but man-of-the match Farrell showed great tenacity, leadership and the same level of self-belief needed to step into the onsen.

England led by fourteen points with just fifteen minutes remaining, when Fiji’s Peni Ravai and Vilimoni Botitu crossed over our line for tries in a frantic five minutes to level the score at 24-24. Captain Farrell, chosen over George Ford to start at 10, vindicated his selection as his drop-goal made it 27-24 with eight minutes remaining.

Another Farrell penalty in the 78th minute gave England more breathing room. It was uncomfortably tight to the end though, with Fiji enjoying a late 15-phase attack which kept the English defence busy. Without Farrell’s right boot, it might have been a wholly different outcome. As it is, Steve Borthwick’s side are just 80 minutes away from making a final no one thought remotely possible seven weeks ago.

If nothing about the game was quite as spectacular as Fiji’s glorious kit – an erupting volcano of black and glowing lava – England were energised by the possibility this might prove their last game at the tournament and challenged Fiji  athletic, no-nonsense physicality with some of their own. England were enthusiastically resolute.

At a ground where his great mate George Ford produced a stellar made-in-Oldham individual performance against Argentina three weeks ago – he scored all the points as a 14-man England won 27-14 – Farrell fashioned his own made-in-Wigan version of a Marseille masterpiece, silencing the critics with a 20-point tally and his best showing in an England shirt for some time.

England needed their captain. This was a ding-dong game, a valiant Fiji so nearly victorious after summoning a second-half comeback seemingly from nowhere. It may have lacked the purity and ingenuity of Ireland v New Zealand and the compulsion of France v South Africa, but this was a dramatic contest played with an admirable commitment and physicality throughout.

Farrell was a leader with belief in himself and his team. And really, when the heat is on and there are two ways of approaching it. Recall the onsen? You can wilt in the shadows,  doubting yourself. Or you can kick off your inhibitions, bare your soul to the world and step boldly into the bubbling cauldron. Farrell did this in full on Sunday.

Farrell comes from an incredible Wigan rugby family. His father is Andy Farrell, who played both rugby league and rugby union for England, now head coach of Ireland. His uncle is Keiron O’Loughlin and grandfather Sean O’Loughlin, both rugby league giants. Hailing from the heartland of rugby league, Farrell has played since the age of eight, starting off with Wigan St Patricks.

Farrell has played for England since 2012, captain since 2018, and is now our top points scorer with 1,206, his penalty in the 18th minute versus Samoa in the final group game overtaking Jonny Wilkinson. His scoring celebration has become a common sight – there is always something bigger in his mind whenever he lands a kick for England.

Farrell links his hands in a ‘celebration’ that reaches out to a cause close to his heart. The ‘Jack salute’ involves linking the two forefingers in the shape of the initials ‘JJ’ and has been seen every time Farrell has scored points since 2014. Jack Johnson, now 11, was diagnosed with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, a terminal muscle-wasting disease, in October 2011. Jack’s father played rugby league with Farrell’s own father at Wigan.

Farrell could not dream of a better eighty minutes as he approaches the peak moments of his career, and few would deny him the moment. He is becoming one of the finest fly-half of all time, and not just for his scoring prowess, he also made more tackles than any other player from either side in the quarter final too. Close up shots as he prepared to take his kicks, under pressure like we can’t imagine, showed a calmness in his face and a determination in his eyes, an inner belief and resolution. You just knew that he was going to knock those kicks over.

Success is most often achieved by those who don’t know that failure is inevitable. Believe you can and you’re halfway there, as the saying goes. The worst enemy to Farrell on the field would have been his own self-doubt, but I recall an interview once where he said, I do not believe in taking the right decision on my kicking, I take a decision and make the kick right.

So, what gives Farrell this self-starter attitude and self-belief, what is the framework for his mental toughness and inner confidence that we can take into the high-pressure environment of startup life, and a founder can build into their armoury?

Belief in self: First and foremost, Farrell simply believes in his abilities and strengths. He believes he can make great things happen. I’ve never met a successful person with low self-esteem.  Self-belief is vital, how many things have you not done or tried because you lacked belief in yourself? As Eleanor Roosevelt so deftly put it: Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent.

Belief in beating the odds: To be successful, we have to be open minded, with no sense of what you cannot do. But, bit-by-bit, life starts to teach you to limit yourself. Farrell doesn’t hope he can beat the odds-on kicking 40m penalties, he believes wholeheartedly that he will.  There is no second-guessing.  As they say, those who say they can and those that say they can’t are both right.  If you don’t believe you can beat the odds, chances are you won’t.

Belief to deal with the inner negative voice: When you start to doubt yourself listen for a moment to that negative inner voice. Whose voice is it really? It’s often a collection of lots of different voices from different times and people from your past that causes self-belief to wane. One thing’s for sure, that inner self-critical voice shouldn’t be yours. It may masquerade as belonging to you now, but it doesn’t really. One of the first steps is to re-examine and discard many of the limiting ideas you have about yourself, ideas that you’ve somehow collected along the way. Get rid of the baggage!

Belief in flipping a weakness into strength: Dumbo, my favourite cartoon character, was humiliated by his outsize ears. He hated them at first. But, through time, he came to use them, to fulfil his destiny, even changing his attitude. Like Dumbo, if we just focus on what is not right about ourselves rather than what is, then we miss opportunities for self-belief. Focusing on perceived weaknesses without either taking steps to improve them or also giving fair focus toward our strengths gets us nowhere. Know that the positive flipside of a weakness, in the right context, can be put to good use.

Belief in perseverance: This is a big attribute of Farrell’s down the years. The obstacles that cause many people to quit are minor setbacks for the true champion – missing out on the 2015 world cup due to defeat by Australia in the quarter-finals will have been a huge motivation. Winners persist, losers desist. It is often that simple difference in self-belief that separates the successful person from the frustrated failure.

Belief in the vision: For Farrell, his vision was bigger than just the winning. It was a vision of being part of a champion England team. It was never about his personal success but being part of a collective team. His self-belief got him into the team, his self-belief helped him be part of a winning team.  

Showing your belief to others: On being described as the Wigan foghorn by teammate Danny Care, Farrell said Good. Communicating and being loud is a big part of my game. I’ve never been shy about doing that. But you need to make sure you back it up with knowledge and performance.  A startup founder needs to show up, show off their self-belief and show the way to demonstrate others their confidence in themselves, the venture, and the team.

Along the way, startup life offers various trials and tribulations. It’s self-belief that determines your direction and ultimately success – it’s not how often you’re knocked over but how many times you get up that makes the difference. Self-belief determines a significant portion of your startup life. It informs your decisions,  shapes how you react to different circumstances and affect how you interact with the people around you.

Beliefs determine how we think, act, and feel. If we have the wrong kinds of beliefs, we will end up in disaster. If we have the right kinds of beliefs, we will flourish. As J M Barrie said in Peter Pan, the moment you doubt whether you can fly, you cease forever to be able to do it.

Looking at Owen Farrell’s performance on the pitch Sunday, listening to his interviews, reading comments from manager Steve Borthwick and his team mates, here are the seven key beliefs I see in Farrell that are important to becoming a success startup entrepreneur and founder:

  • The belief that you have influence and some control over your direction of travel, personally and business wise
  • The belief that you can solve any challenges that stand up in your face
  • The belief that taking moderate risks is necessary to find a way forward
  • The belief that pressure can help you increase your performance
  • The belief that experimentation is a never-ending aspect of working towards a solution
  • The belief that you can handle highly complex and ambiguous situations
  • The belief that you can always recover from any negative situation, and that you can always keep pushing forward

So, here is what you need to ask yourself:

Which of these beliefs is currently not a part of your worldview? Which of these beliefs are you not living on a daily basis? What steps can you take, to integrate these beliefs into your daily decision-making?

Be like Owen Farrell on the rugby pitch; be sure to put your feet in the right place, then stand firm. Believe in yourself. Make it happen. Onto South Africa this Saturday, he’ll lead from the front again. With self-belief. In spades.

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