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An Entrepreneur’s Deadly Trait

Get in the Boat!

I’m 6 feet tall and weigh 145 pounds wet.
Water, in fact, is a problem, as I get cold very easily. 

I consider swimming just a method of retrieving whatever I might have dropped. But, I’m from a family of great swimmers, and a rite of passage among the McKelveys is an open water swim to shore from a particular island.  One day, five of us decided to do the island swim together; my friend John dropped us off on the island and kept the drunken jet-skiers away as we swam back.

The water was cold.  Now, that’s normal for me; I always think the water is cold.  But swimming hard warms you up, so I have learned to ignore the feeling until I’m either warm or numb.  But this day was different from the dozen other times I had made the island swim.  My body just wasn’t moving.  I could barely lift my arms, and my legs felt like they were wearing chainmail.  After fifteen minutes, I still had not warmed up and the other swimmers were out of sight. 

John, in the safety boat, decided to abandon the group and come back for me.  He asked me to get in the boat, but then my stubbornness kicked in. I knew I could make it to shore. I had made the swim before and my arms and legs were still moving then, albeit not well.  Now I was shaking with cold, but I knew I could make it.  I tried different strokes.  I tried resting.  After another twenty minutes, my half-dolphin brother had reached the shore then swum back to me and was also saying, “Jimmy, get in the boat.” 

I don’t like swimming.

I had nobody to impress. I was so cold that my stroke was like an injured jellyfish.  But I knew that the shore was somewhere ahead.  Something in my head said, “just one more minute.”  I am so accustomed to ignoring negative feedback that even when it’s my own body talking, I often don’t listen. 

My sister-in-law and stepmother are both excellent swimmers in addition to being physicians.  As medical doctors, they are usually very calm in the face of most medical emergencies, but not that afternoon.  Once I finally made it to shore, both of them started yelling something about the color of my skin or something. I don’t remember.  I somewhat recall sitting on the floor of the shower until the water heater was depleted.  An hour later I still could not stop shaking.  Finally, my father, who is not a swimmer but has a PhD in chemical engineering, poured me a glass of bourbon, which worked surprisingly well.

Having survived that episode and now researched hypothermia, I know what I did was life-threateningly stupid.  I won’t do it again.  But so many things in my life have failed hundreds of times but succeeded eventually[1] that I have learned to just try again.  And again.  I don’t get in the boat.  It may be optimism or delusion or fear or something else, but why not take another shot? 

Is there a lesson here beyond not pushing the limits of hypothermia? 

I tell this story because it is a physical example of a behavior I see often in entrepreneurs:  persevering even though quitting is the smart thing to do.  This is a positive quality in only a few situations.  But one of those situations is when you are doing something that has not been done and are getting no positive feedback from the world.  The smart thing may be to quit, but some of us won’t. And those who do quit never find out what would have happened if they hadn’t.

The other lesson is to have a competent team in place to handle the fallout from this level of stubbornness.  I probably would have survived by myself, but having a friend in a lifeboat, two physicians waiting on shore, and a dad with a fully stocked bar sure helped.  The teams around me at work often have to intercede on my behalf, and I am lucky to have them.  John, my friend in the safety boat, once stepped in as CEO of one of my companies and saved its life. 

“Get in the Boat” has now become shorthand among my family and friends for times when a person really should give up.  I hear the phrase monthly.  Sometimes I even listen. 

[1] I once spent three years and several hundred attempts to learn how to make a particular shape in glass.