Starting Before You’re Ready

I listened to an excellent episode of the Virgin Disruptors podcast yesterday, and the closing remarks from the host Holly Ransom really got me thinking about the course of my own career. The episode was on the theme of Purpose, and listening to the panel of young entrepreneurial disruptors speak with Richard Branson about how they’re pushing the boundaries of their respective industries was incredibly inspiring. A very interesting point made by one disruptor was that if she had known in the beginning how much work it would be and the sacrifices she would have to make to float her business, she probably wouldn’t have started at all. And this is absolutely true. I mean, if we all knew in advance how difficult things in our life would be, would anyone be willing to do them? Probably not. Perhaps this is why we seem to spend most of our time “preparing” for the next big event, upskilling ourselves, and waiting for the “right moment”. I know I’m certainly guilty of it! My obsessively logical brain can’t compute an alternative. And this is why the advice given by Holly to young entrepreneurs was so startling in its truth: start before you’re ready. To most of us this sounds counter-intuitive, right? But after a brief reflection on my own career, sporting and personal life, I realized that was exactly what had happened to me all along, and not just once, but multiple times.

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Starting before you’re ready, or the way I’d always thought of it in my head, being thrown in the deep end, is an excellent way to learn, grow and expand your skill set – fast! It’s sink or swim, and our survival instinct usually means we swim no matter what. Starting before you’re ready forces us to take on roles, opportunities and experiences that we may never have accepted on our own, due to our real or perceived lack of knowledge and skills. After all, if we wait until we are ready, we will never start. After being thrown in the deep end many times – both by others and of my own accord – I have come to realise that these were the most valuable learning curves in which I discovered the most about myself, what I am capable of, and what my limits are, and that it was these experiences that broke down the barriers and advanced me to the next level. So despite a very real risk of drowning on occasions, I have come to appreciate what these moments did for me as a person and as a professional.

Funnily enough, once I started thinking back on my career all I could see were examples of me furiously treading water. And despite what you’re thinking, I really do thank my mentors for this. Seriously! Early in my career I was unexpectedly handed the role of performance analyst for the national diving team…not only was this out of my field of expertise (I’m a physiologist!!), I had limited background knowledge of the technical elements of the sport – I was barely able to translate dive codes!  So I embarked on a fast-track plan to upskill myself, which I did with many hours of analyzing dive videos, poring over diving biomechanics textbooks and spending weeks on pool deck with the coaches learning the intricacies of the sport. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience to diversify my skills as a practitioner, immerse myself in another sport’s culture, and continuously increase my knowledge over the two years I was with them.

Years later I took a role overseas that turned out bigger than I ever could have imagined. Suddenly I had the responsibility of setting up and managing a department, a laboratory, practicing as a sport scientist (and by that I mean physiology, biomechanics, performance analysis, sports nutrition and whatever else needed doing), endlessly travelling, conducting research, developing interns and coordinating services for other national federations. (Needless to say…I had a lot to learn!!). Although this was a hectic period in my career, the subsequent diversification and expansion of my skill set was phenomenal. I spent countless hours reading sports management texts, Googling strategic planning, visiting international centres to figure out what I was supposed to be developing, whilst teaching myself biomechanics, sports nutrition and a foreign language! Treading water was the art of survival.

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The story was the same in other areas of my life, particularly sporting. From doing a 70.3 ironman triathlon as my second race ever, to competing in my first amateur boxing match after a mere 3 months of proper training, starting before I’m ready seems to have become my modus operandi. In some respects, I think this is actually a blessing in disguise, otherwise we face the risk of “paralysis by analysis”, when we overthink things and eventually talk ourselves out of doing whatever it is that deep down we really want to do.

What makes these types of experiences manageable is our sense of purpose and drive to succeed. When we connect with our reasons for why we choose to undertake such daunting tasks the how takes care of itself, and this rings true for starting before you’re ready. Learning to recognize these gems of opportunities and dive in on our own accord is a skill to be developed; it comes back to that idea of knowing in advance the enormity of what you’re about to take on. (Sometimes, perhaps ignorance really is bliss!) But having experienced firsthand the enormous value of these experiences, the benefit certainly outweighs the cost of accepting such challenges…provided there are lifeguards and floatie rings within reach of course!

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Top Tips for Starting Before You’re Ready:

  1. Take a big breath before you jump! Who knows when you’ll surface for air again?
  2. Use all the appropriate resources that are available to you. Immerse yourself in literature, media, hands-on practice and talk to and visit with as many experts as you can.
  3. Spend time with coaches and learn their craft. Be in their environment, ask questions, discover how they operate, learn their language and familiarize yourself with the daily operations.
  4. Keep a growth mindset. Surviving in this environment and achieving success will require an open mind, an expansion of knowledge, and most likely a change in thinking and behaviour. This is the domain in which we reap the most benefits.
  5. Find your why for accepting the challenge. This sense of purpose drives our motivation and from this, the how comes naturally. Your why is what you’ll draw upon in those moments when you want to stop treading!
  6. Trust yourself. Draw upon your previous experiences, knowledge and skills to get you as far as possible and when that runs out, learn the remainder of what you need to know to be successful.
  7. Reflect on the process. The most difficult periods in our lives always teach us the most lessons, so take time out to reflect on what you have achieved, what you have learnt and how you have grown as a person/professional as a result. The two always interact.
  8. Fill your tool box with as many new skills and abilities as possible to carry with you into the future…and on to the next challenge!
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