Lessons in entrepreneurship from the poetry of John Cooper Clarke & Rudyard Kipling

Poetry, for me, is not something to be read quietly in a corner and reflected upon. It is always a phonetic medium, every time. At school, we had to memorise it. This included all twenty stanzas of The Lady of Shalott by Alfred Lord Tennyson. It was a compendium, unbelievably long, and we were often called upon to stand up and recite selected verses to the rest of the class from memory. That brought home the fact that poetry should be heard first.

I’ve recently been revisiting the work of Salford born ‘punk poet’ John Cooper Clarke. Now aged seventy, with nine albums behind him, his current tour is no different to that when I saw him in 1979, a set characterised by lively, rapid-fire renditions of his observational poems performed a cappella.

Known as ‘the bard of Salford’, he usually refers to himself on stage as Johnny Clarke, the name behind the hairstyle.  He has a huge talent, kind heart and sparkling wit. He’s the godfather of British performance poetry, a poet who writes about darkness and decay but makes people laugh, a human cartoon, a gentleman punk, a man who has stayed exactly the same for over forty years but never grown stale.

John Cooper Clarke uses words of anger, humour and disdain in equal measure. He’s the real deal, funny and caustic, the velvet voice of discontent. His anarchic punk poetry has thrilled people for decades and his no nonsense approach to his work and life in general has held appeal for many years. Long may his slender frame and spiky top produce words and deeds that keep us on our toes and alive to the wonders of the world.

His last collection titled The Luckiest Guy Alive contained forty poems and amply demonstrates that his scabrous wit and vivid way with words remains untamed. His writing is guided by a desire to communicate his thoughts on our shared humanity.

Learning poetry by heart at school, while you won’t understand it at the time, it may sneak up on you thirty years later. Poetry is the shortest possible way of saying something that needs saying. There’s something to cherish in the words, a thought that the work itself will outlast us all.

One of my favourite poems is If, written by the English poet and Nobel Prize for Literature winner Rudyard Kipling. This poem has always been a stand out piece of writing for me, I think it’s inspirational not only for startup leaders and entrepreneurs, but for all people who want to maximise their potential and live life to the fullest.

The poem contains mottos and maxims for life. The poem is also a blueprint for personal integrity, behaviour and self-development. If is perhaps even more relevant today than when Kipling wrote it, as an ethos and a personal philosophy.

Kipling’s life was one replete with trials, hardships, and sorrows, but time and again he overcame them. This poem, which is really one long single sentence, encapsulates the lessons he learned. It is believed that he wrote If as four, eight-line stanzas of advice to his son, John,

If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

But make allowance for their doubting too;

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,

Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,

Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,

And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

 

If you can dream — and not make dreams your master;

If you can think — and not make thoughts your aim;

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

And treat those two impostors just the same;

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken

Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,

Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,

And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

 

If you can make one heap of all your winnings

And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,

And lose, and start again at your beginnings

And never breathe a word about your loss;

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew

To serve your turn long after they are gone,

And so hold on when there is nothing in you

Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

 

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,

Or walk with Kings — nor lose the common touch,

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,

If all men count with you, but none too much;

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,

And — which is more — you’ll be a Man, my son!

So what makes Kipling’s If, the ultimate entrepreneur’s poem? This is an inspirational poem that expresses various ways in which you can rise above adversity that we will almost face at some point in one’s startup life. Throughout the poem, Kipling offers multiple scenarios, contrasting both positive and negative, along with a glimpse into how one should conduct oneself.

The poem has an almost mathematical proof about it with its if-then scenario. Kipling leaves the then until the final two lines, revealing that if he or she is able to do all that was just mentioned, he or she will not only have the world at his or her fingertips, but he or she will also be a ‘Man’ – as it’s written for his son John, it’s heartfelt fatherly advice.

Kipling keeps a positive and upbeat tone throughout, informing the reader what to do in order to be a successful person in life. The poem reads like one continuous thought. I read it as a magnificent tribute to many  great virtues – staying composed under stress, remaining humble when victorious, never despairing when defeated, and always retaining honour and authenticity.

So let’s look at a few of the verses and their relevance to startup founders.

Trust in yourself

If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you; if you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, but make allowance for their doubting too.

This reminds me of one of my favourite business quotes, from former CEO of Netscape Jim Barksdale: If we have data, let’s look at data. If all we have are opinions, let’s go with mine.  In a startup, we will always have doubters and critics in all that we do. Listen to them because someone will be valid observations, but also have confidence in yourself, don’t fold, stay composed when under pressure. So, on the same hand, take constructive criticism to heart, without being too self-righteous.

Keep a balanced mindset and outlook

Kipling reminds us of the importance of maintaining a level head:

If you can dream — and not make dreams your master; If you can think — and not make thoughts your aim; If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, And treat those two impostors just the same;

It points to the relationship between inspiration and desperation, which we’ve all faced in our startup ventures. When you are under pressure, the things that are best and worst about people and business, come to the fore. We’ve all been there. Pushed a bit too far, been a bit too snappy. Truth is that these things happen to us all but that’s not the interesting part; it’s the response that really does matter.

Kipling urges us to not follow the crowd, but be our own thinkers and stand firm in our own beliefs and values. He reminds us there are answers we may not have, and to keep an open mind to learning. Kipling urges us to dream and think, but to not get so caught up in dreams and thoughts that we lose our grasp on reality.

Just be

This is my favourite lesson of the poem. To treat triumph and disaster as the same imposter is to learn how to just be. Startup life is a journey of ups and downs. I’ve learned that the founder who can embrace all volatility and just ‘be’ has the most peace in their entrepreneurial journey.

If you can make one heap of all your winnings; And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss; And lose, and start again at your beginnings; And never breathe a word about your loss;

Kipling demonstrates here the importance of being able to pick oneself up and start again if we fail. We must always be prepared to start again, and be willing to forget about the loss and not dwell on it.

Endurance is a great virtue

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew; To serve your turn long after they are gone; And so hold on where there is nothing in you; Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

These lines are particularly powerful. All entrepreneurs must endure, even if that feels both physically and emotionally impossible. It is also worth noting the capitalisation of Will. Perhaps Kipling wanted to emphasise the resilience of the human spirit by making it a power that is separate from the person who possesses it?

Craft the outcome to your journey

The fourth and final stanza reveals the consequence of doing all of these ifs, but not before Kipling presents us with three more scenarios. The first one deals with how to treat others, regardless of their station in life. Maintaining your honour and authenticity is a standout human quality, treating everyone with respect and open-handedness will take you far.

Take risks. Do what you love. Lead your startup from the front. Do it! Life is too short for dogma, and being trapped living a life you don’t enjoy. It’s easy to let fame and success get to our heads, but Kipling urges us to stay grounded and to remember where we came from.

Life is short. We only have a finite time here on earth – the unforgiving minute, with sixty seconds worth of distance run – and should use it as best as we can. Kipling tells us to never give up or waste even a single second of time. If you are given a minute, make sure you use all sixty seconds of it.

Finally, in the last two lines, the outcome of abiding by all of these thoughts is revealed:

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!

For me, John Cooper Clarke joins Kipling for his art of writing that contain timeless lessons that stays relevant. In fact, I believe these writings and lessons are not just enjoyable, but vital, in that we can reflect on our own situation, find inspiration, and stay grounded.

With our technology advancements, continual globalisation, and the dawn of artificial intelligence, it’s good to be reminded at the end of the day that we must learn to enjoy life for all that it is, and remember life lessons can be captured in poetry, and not just focus on the frenzy of our startup endeavours.

While it’s beneficial to have a work rhythm, don’t let your habits turn into mindless routines. When this happens, you can fall into the doldrums, where you operate on autopilot and stop thinking creatively. Poetry will help you develop a more satisfying and more successful work life.

That is because as entrepreneurs, like poets, we benefit greatly from studying our craft and continuously reflecting on how we’re engaging with our work, colleagues and our surroundings. Even if you have little experience with creative writing, I encourage you to read poetry, it will refresh your perspectives, thinking and reinvigorate and reinspire your daily work habits.

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