I’ve noticed in my life, in my work, I keep seeking out bigger cliffs to stand at the edge of, higher peaks from which to see more of the vista, more of the possibilities of this world. My yearning is to step off and fly. And yet so often I find myself a year or so into the new adventure scrabbling gracelessly down the mountain, overwhelmed by my fears, clinging breathlessly onto a cliff face, my companions, perhaps a rope.
My first memory of this was probably being selected as a bowler for the district cricket team when I was fifteen. It sounds funny now, but I couldn’t believe it, that I would be selected. I had bowled well that year, but with that new recognition came a fear. I had no idea how or why I had bowled so well that year, I just had. As the fear worked its way into me I went to a bowling clinic ahead of the start of the season to get some handle on how I was supposed to be doing this thing that I had been doing so well without thought.
I still die slightly inside when I think of that season. It started badly. My deliveries were slow, wide, not well pitched and knocked for fours all over the field. As my anxiety grew, I tried to control my arm, but they just got worse with a number finally missing the pitch altogether. I can’t even recall if I played out the season. I withdrew without a word, and from there my consciousness has done its best to withdraw from the memories.
The mind is a miraculous thing, but it is not everything. I have learned over and over again, that the more I try to control situations, the more I try to think my way through, often the worse the outcome.
And so it has been with my experience in VC. The launch of our fund had a touch of the miraculous. After so many years of evangelising the art, laws and implications of disruptive innovation we had finally been heard and given the opportunity to put our thesis for a new model of corporate VC as a response to disruption to the test.
However, toward the end of last year, ten ventures in, five boards each between my partner and I, I found myself back on that cliff face clinging to the ledges, back on that field as a fifteen year old bracing my arm even tighter in fear of throwing another ball into the dirt.
My relationships with some of my founders had gone from the easy give and take of newly weds to a never ending game of chess. My experience of new developments in market had gone from almost childlike curiosity and wonder to wincing bouts of FOMO. My experience with my business partner, whom I sincerely and deeply love and respect, had gone from natural unselfish inclusion to score keeping. And the intuitive pattern recognition I used with new ventures had become a rigid set of criteria that reduced everything to two dimensional failures to measure up. I thought I was doing pretty well at home but my wife reminds me I was not. I was never really present. I was busy. I slept and worked.
This last week I participated in Reboot’s second VC bootcamp.
It started with a rude reflection. “The great tragedy of speed as an answer to the complexities and responsibilities of existence is that very soon we cannot recognize anything or anyone who is not travelling at the same velocity as we are… Soon we begin to suffer a form of amnesia, caused by the blurred vision of velocity itself, where those things germane to our humanity are dropped from our minds one by one…. We start to lose sight of any colleagues … we start to lose sight of family members, especially children. Just as seriously, we begin to leave behind the vulnerabilities that actually give us color and character… A friend falls sick, and in that busyness, we find their interruption of our frantic lives frustrating and distracting. On the surface we extend our sympathies, but underneath we are already moving in a direction that takes us far away. We flee the situation even if we are sending flowers every day.” David Whyte, Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgramage of Identity
Over the weekend bootcamp, I sat with a Koan (A paradox to be meditated upon that is used to train Zen Buddhist monks to abandon ultimate dependence on reason and to force them into gaining sudden intuitive enlightenment) which reflected the Koan I have been sitting with my whole career. In a VC industry, as in the world, where 5% of the funds generate 95% of the returns, where failure and missing out are the norm and success the exception, how can I operate with grace rather than haste, in flow not fear?
What landed for me was a solution that a teacher had given me shortly before the camp but which I hadn’t quite understood at the time — surrender. Surrender to the fact that most of what happens in my VC investing career will be out of my control. Surrender to the fact that there will be failures, probably more than successes. Surrender to the subtle knowing of what feels right to and for me rather than what others believe or want of me, even in the face of their anger and disappointment. Surrender to the knowledge that while it might feel at times like people are trying to take advantage of me, they are only caught up in their own fears and yearning for their own surrender, for their own acceptance of themselves and of the inevitable ebb and flow of life. Surrender to the fact that in a world of convex options, my enthusiasm for a venture, not my anxieties around its flaws, will be the best compass for success.
This is not to say I have mastered it. Quite the opposite. I am delicately holding the emerging buds of an understanding. I know that surrender doesn’t mean I won’t experience fear, anger or disappointment. I know surrender doesn’t mean I won’t have to take a stand. I know that surrender doesn’t mean I won’t have to work hard.
I think that surrender is reflected in the warrior pose that Jerry Colonna taught us on bootcamp — straight back, open hands and open heart. I think that surrender requires a light grip on life and laughing often. I think it requires creating enough space at key moments to connect with the quieter voices, the quieter knowing within me. I think that surrender is helped by a discipline of daily meditation and probably exercise. I think that surrender is assisted by regular parasympathetic resets — aka taking a deep breath, as the reboot team also taught us. I think that for me, surrender is helped by faith in a higher order meaning to life, perhaps even a higher power. But I am still feeling my way into it all.
The camp was a deeply welcomed reawakening and connected me with the hearts and souls of a group of magnificent VC colleagues in a way that I could never have imagined possible. More personally, it allowed me to feel that at last I might be able to connect two parts of myself that have been dancing closer and closer but never quite felt they could be in the same room — my deeply soulful side and my pragmatic businessman, the lover and the fighter.
At the camp it started to crystallise for me with Hallelujah, which I first heard off the aptly named album ‘Grace’ by Jeff Buckley (although the song was written by another master, Leonard Cohen). Though I’ve sung it literally thousands of times, at the bootcamp, I sang it as I never have before. As I surrendered my critics ear checking for flaws and gave myself over to the song, it was seemingly infused by the grace of the soul of this group of VCs that had woven together over this short but somehow infinite weekend. It almost felt like I was in the audience listening to a stranger’s voice from another dimension and I could feel the gentle surrender in response of each heart in the room as I carried them to the end.
When I’d finished, I tried to play another song because I thought the group wanted it and let’s be honest, I wanted to be wanted. My arm tightened. I fluffed it. Surrender is never ending work.
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