Why Wrestlers Make the Best Entrepreneurs
Something I think about a lot as a parent, and something I’m sure every parent in the world asks every day, is, “How do I raise my kids to be successful?” I’ve traveled around the world looking for answers to this question. I’ve talked to monks, entrepreneurs, yogis, and athletes as a part of the Spartan Up! podcast. And as I heard different answers from different people, I noticed something strange.
A disproportionate number of these highly successful people grew up wrestling.
This intrigued me as an entrepreneur but also as a father. I didn’t grow up wrestling; I grew up running a pool-cleaning company. At the same time, though, I always had a very high opinion of wrestlers, or anyone who devotes his life to a hard discipline like wrestling or kung fu. At one point, I even hired a Chinese kung fu master to come live in our house in Vermont and teach my kids, just because I believed that discipline would make them successful. Now, as I go around talking to all these highly successful people, the hunch I had about wrestlers has started to become a full-blown theory. I started to realize: there’s something about wrestling that teaches you how to be an entrepreneur.
Take Kyle Dake, for instance. He’s a four-time NCAA champion in four different weight classes and he’s been wrestling since he was 4 years old. Clearly he’s a physically talented guy, but a major part of his success is in the way he thinks.
At bottom, Kyle is a diehard optimist.
He doesn’t think about losing. He only says, "What’s the next challenge?" One thing he said to me has stuck with me since the day we talked: “In your worst moment, you can find good in that, no matter what.”
When he told me that, I started to realize that, if you’re a wrestler like Kyle, there really is no way you can survive in the sport except by thinking that way. When you’re a wrestler, and you’re in a sweaty singlet on an open mat, there’s nothing, absolutely nothing to drive you forward other than your own positive thoughts.
Every wrestler wrestles alone. Completely alone.
And when I think about Kyle, stripped down to nothing but a thin layer of stretchy fabric, totally level with another practically naked human being, I realize that it takes exactly the same attitude to survive as an entrepreneur. Just like a wrestler, every entrepreneur is completely, utterly alone, and there’s nothing driving them forward but their own internal fire. In the world of business, if you’re not a diehard optimist like Kyle, you’re eventually going to come to a point where you say, “F*** it, I can’t be that strong. I can’t be that fast. I can’t be that innovative. I can’t work that hard.” You’re going to crash and burn, and you’re going to quit.
I learned something similar when I talked with another (former) wrestler, Tim Ferriss, the guy who wrote The Four-Hour Work Week. He told me that he used to be the smallest kid in the playground—which is funny, if you see the guy now. Years and years of wrestling and martial arts turned this kid into a winner at the 1999 US Wushu Kung Fu National Championships. Then, he founded his own company and sold it in 2010. Now, he’s a bestselling author, and you can find his face on at least 100 major media outlets.
When I was talking with Tim, he told me that success only happens when you can recover from rejection. “If something doesn’t work out, ask why,” he says. “It’s not about the answers you’re looking for; it’s about finding the right path to look for them.” If you can become a master of looking at what you did wrong and learning from it, you’re golden.
Now, if you go back to the image of the mat, you’ll see where I’m going with this. When you’re a wrestler, you don’t fail because of bad luck or faulty equipment or a bad mat or bad teammates. And it would be silly to say that your opponent is the reason you failed.
The only real reason you fail as a wrestler is you.
In any wrestling match, you only have two things to work with: your body and your training. This puts 100 percent of the responsibility for failure on you. Either you’re not strong enough, or you’re not using the right technique. Because of this, wrestling teaches people like Tim Ferriss to become masters of adaptation. Entrepreneurs have to do the same thing: every day it’s a hustle to figure out what you did wrong and what you can do better. If you can’t accept failure and learn from it, your business is going nowhere.
There’s a guy named Mike Reilly, the co-founder of Active, who really drives home this point about responsibility. I got to talk with Mike about his 25 years as the voice of Iron Man — literally, the voice, because he’s the guy announcing all the events. Outside of the events, he’s a lifesaving motivator. And, surprise — he wrestled in college and high school. What wrestling taught Mike was this:
“You are the cause of your own experience.”
When you’re competing mano y mano with another person on the mat, there are no excuses for failure. But because every outcome is yours and yours only, the learning that comes from it is profound. Some days after a three-hour wrestling practice, Mike would be literally crawling to the shower because he was so exhausted. He’d say, “I’m never going to do that again.” But then he’d be back the next day, ready to do better. He never won as much as his brother Pat, but he thinks he learned more.
When you know you’re the cause of your own experience, you become your greatest teacher, your most powerful leader, and your strongest source of motivation.
Now, keep in mind that I do not mean that you’re going to become successful if you just beat yourself down and blame yourself for everything you do wrong. That’s not what I mean. In fact, when I sat down with former Olympic wrestler Nate Carr, he put this into words better than I ever could:
“Never personalize failure.”
Now, you’re probably saying, “Wait, Joe, I thought you were saying this whole time to blame yourself for your own problems. Why all of a sudden is it not my fault?” No, that’s not what I was saying. I meant to say that you should see yourself as the cause of your own failure or success. You’re the problem and the solution. What Nate said to me is very different.
When Nate got beaten by another wrestler, he didn’t beat himself up afterwards and spiral into negative thoughts. He didn’t say, “I’m the problem.” Instead, he said something like, “My elbow position is the problem,” or, “My stance is the problem,” or, “I need to get lower to the ground.” In that way, all the responsibility for the failure still rests on Nate’s shoulders, but he had laid out a concrete step to take so that he wouldn’t fail again.
When you don’t personalize failure, you can look at it objectively and come up with a solid plan to improve the next match.
At the end of the day, when I’m thinking of the best thing I can do to teach my kids to be successful, I have to agree with these wrestlers. Every kid needs to learn that they are the only reason they succeeded or failed. Every kid needs to learn that they are, in a sense, wrestling naked and alone on a mat with their opponent. Every kid needs to learn that, if they can look at their failures objectively and figure out what they need to do to succeed next time, and then try hard enough and put in the hours and show up every day, they could turn any failure into a success—and become champions.