Startup founders: adopt the growth mindset of Eric Liddell

The announcement of the death of actor Ben Cross last week brought back memories of his role in the Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire, when he played Harold Abrahams, the British Jewish athlete driven as a runner not just to win gold at the 1924 Paris Olympics, but also to battle antisemitism.

The film also features a fellow British team member, the devout Scottish Protestant missionary Eric Liddell, played by Ian Charleson, who is similarly in a quest to combat discrimination. Abrahams wins the 100 metres, while Liddell triumphs in the 400 metres.

The two actors shared one of the most memorable opening scenes in film history, among the sprinters on a training run along a Scottish beach, enhanced dramatically with moments in slow motion and Vangelis’s inspirational music.

Don’t tell me you haven’t run along to the music in slow motion at some time in your life? I always do it when I see someone going mad in the gym and satisfy myself with a slow-motion lurch to the line to win an imaginary gold medal, with just a mild sweat on.

Chariots of Fire has always been one of my favourites because of the story and principles of Eric Liddell. Although it didn’t inspire me to become a runner, it offers a number of personal performance and coaching lessons, not just for athletes, but for startup folks as well.

Chariots of Fire is about mindset, determination and self-belief. At the heart of the film is the quest for Olympic glory, with personal challenges resonating throughout. The film depicts the struggles of the two British Olympic runners and how they reconcile their love of running with their respective faiths. It tells the story of a special man, Eric Liddell.

Liddell was the son of a China-based Scottish missionary, powered by his unremitting Christian faith, something that causes consternation when he pulls out of a 100m Olympics heat because it is to be run on a Sunday. Liddell feels divinely inspired when running: I believe that God made me for a purpose. But He also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure.

Liddell, nicknamed the ‘Flying Scotsman’, was favourite for the 100m Olympic gold, however his faith is a barrier as the 100m final is slated for a Sunday, so he switches to the 400m. Imagine that, the opportunity for a gold medal sacrificed because of his beliefs.

Before the 400m final, the American coach remarks dismissively to his runners that Liddell has little chance of doing well. Liddell’s best was 49.6 seconds – but one of the American runners, Jackson Scholz, hands Liddell a note of support for his convictions. Liddell defeats the Americans and wins the gold medal in a new World and Olympic record of 47.6 seconds.

Liddell’s racing career was short, from 1921 to 1925. In those four years he won two Olympic medals and seven caps for Scotland at rugby union, where he became a first-choice wing three-quarter before forsaking the sport in 1923 to concentrate on athletics.

His final race came less than a year after the Olympics, in June 1925, when he won the 100 yards, the 220 yards and the quarter-mile events at the Scottish Amateur Championships. A few weeks later hundreds of well wishers turned up at Waverley Station in Edinburgh as he began his journey to China to become a missionary, where he remained for the rest of his life.

However, once Japan entered WWII, Liddell and other westerners had their freedom of movement restricted, and in 1943 he was interned at a camp in Weihsien. There he established a school and took charge of the children’s recreation, organising sporting activities.

Early in 1945, six months before the camp’s liberation, Liddell became ill. In a letter he told his wife that he feared he was having a nervous breakdown. In fact it was a brain tumour, untreatable in those circumstances, and on 21 February 1945 he died. He was buried in a simple garden, his grave marked by a small wooden cross.

The site was forgotten until it was rediscovered in 1989. A gravestone, made of red granite from the Isle of Mull and carved in Tobermory, was placed near the site in 1991. The simple inscription came from the Book f Isaiah 40:31:“They shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary.

This is an evocative and poignant story of amazing achievement shaped by strong personal values, the key insight to stimulate our own journey and startup thinking is Liddell’s growth mindset. Mindset is everything, we bring it to every decision and action we make, and shapes how we approach challenges and opportunities.

In her book unpacking her research, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Stanford Professor Carol Dweck distinguished two extremes of the mindsets people tend to have:

  • A fixed mindset where you assume your qualities are carved in stone, whatever skills, talents, and capabilities you have are predetermined and finite. Whatever you lack, you will continue to lack – I’m either good at it or not. I stick to what I know, feedback and criticism are personal;
  • A growth mindset whereby your qualities are things you can cultivate through effort, everyone can change and grow through application and experience. Failure is an opportunity to grow, I can learn to do anything I want, my effort and attitude determine my abilities.

I define mindset to be the lens from which I view the world. A growth mindset is an empowering lens from which I can see how to better myself. Fundamentally, my takeaway is that success comes as a result of effort, learning, and persistence.

The distinction between fixed and growth mindsets has significant implications for how we address the growing pressures around us. The mindset paradox suggests that the greatest threat to success is avoiding failure. One of the most provocative aspects of Dweck’s work is what it says about our approach to challenges.

In a fixed mindset, you avoid challenging situations that might lead to failure because success depends upon protecting existing qualities and concealing your deficiencies. If you do fail, you focus on rationalising the failure rather than learning from it and developing your capabilities. With a growth mindset, you focus on learning and development and actively pursue the types of challenges that will likely lead to both learning and failure.

With a growth mindset, you understand that your individual capabilities can be developed to improve performance and expand in new directions. You focus on self-development, creating work opportunities, environments and practices that enable you to develop new skills by experimentation.

As Liddell showed, the future belongs to those who can adopt a growth mindset. Those with a fixed mindset will likely be increasingly overwhelmed by mounting and sustained uncertainty. Worse, the more they avoid failure, the more susceptible these individuals can be, not learning from mistakes and missing opportunities.

Even if we correct these misconceptions, it’s still not easy to attain a growth mindset. One reason why is we all have our own fixed-mindset triggers. When we face challenges, we can easily fall into insecurity or defensiveness, a response that inhibits growth. To remain in a growth zone, we must identify and work with these triggers, learning to recognise when our fixed-mindset persona” shows up and what it says to make them us threatened or defensive.

It’s tough, but we can gain a lot by deepening our understanding of growth-mindset concepts and the processes for putting them into practice. It gives us a richer sense of who we are, what we stand for, and how we want to move forward. So here’s my framework, inspired by Eric Liddell, to cultivate a growth mindset in your startup:

1.     Your goal is to not quit

Having a strong mindset is not a status quo, but rather a journey. Most of the difficult part is to retain the growth mindset orientation and just not quit. At the beginning we are doing everything and often we fall into the trap of thinking that the greater our input, the greater and the better the output will be. That’s just not true.

Takeaway: Having a strong mindset is not a status quo, but rather a journey: most of the times the difficult part is to retain your positive mindset.

2.     Discomfort is your friend

If you want to grow, you’re going to get uncomfortable. Nothing worthwhile comes easy, which is why discomfort shouldn’t be avoided, but rather embraced and accepted. Discomfort in itself is a good barometer to measure if you are stretching yourself. Growth mindset in startups manifests itself in founders who have a genuine curiosity, a willingness to learn, are comfortable being uncomfortable and resilient to the core.

It’s often easier to stick with the things you know and follow the path of least resistance. Be conscious of this, and seek out activities that will challenge you, force you to learn new things, and to grow your skills.

Takeaway: If you are comfortable with what you are doing you are not pushing the boundaries enough.

3.     Prioritise thoughtfully – and do it fast

A growth mindset is all about prioritisation at speed. You need a firm grasp on what will move the needle most for your venture. Do those projects first, and you’ll be more productive, more efficient, and most importantly, focused on work that really matters. Face forward, and move forward, at the best pace you can, and concentrate on yourself.

Takeaway: Look forward, don’t look back. You can’t press ahead at your goals while at the same time watching what everyone else is doing. Yes, you need an understanding of the market landscape, just like a runner can’t just wander into other people’s lanes, but other than that keep the focus straight ahead at the goal

4.     Assess your habits

Inquiring whether behaviour operates as an asset or liability is crucial. This distinction provides the perspective to feel renewed confidence in your strengths or an opportunity to examine blind spots holding you back.

Even when you have the best intentions, your brain can rebel like a toddler throwing a tantrum. This is when habits can do the heavy lifting. Determination is a growth mindset characteristic. Resistance is a fixed mindset anchor, a myriad of mental and emotional forces that can self-sabotage us from doing the work and achieving our dreams.

Takeaway: Entrepreneurship provides the perfect opportunity to learn more about ourselves as a reflection of our strengths and weaknesses. It just takes the courage to explore. We are always a work-in-progress

5.     Get out of your own bubble

As an entrepreneur, self-reflection and openness to change are the cornerstones of success. But it’s easy to get caught up in a bubble of your own ideas and become obsessive. In the end, it comes down to whether you have a genuine desire to really know yourself and your limits. We are hardwired to avoid change, especially once we’re comfortable. We don’t want to leave our safe, warm caves and head out to hunt the lions, whatever they might be.

Takeaway: entrepreneurship provides the perfect opportunity to learn more about ourselves, as a reflection of our strengths and weaknesses. It just takes the courage to explore.

6.     Be yourself

At the start of the 400m, Liddell shook hands with each of the competitors and introduced himself. It was natural for him, but in an Olympic final, it was completely unexpected. Then he left them in the dust with his superior running ability.

Takeaway: You don’t have to be overly aggressive in order to achieve your goals. Better to be who you are and run the race your own way.

For a man whose athletics career was so brief and is now so distant, the lessons to be drawn from Eric Liddell’s growth mindset have always resonated with me as incredibly valuable for entrepreneurs. He was a remarkable man. It took until the 1980 Olympics for another Scot to win a gold medal. After the 100m final race, Allan Wells having won the 100m title that Liddell was denied by an accident of scheduling, he simply said: That one’s for Eric Liddell.

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