My Dad used to tell me this story of when he played football at a high school in a small eastern Kentucky town in the 1950’s. But first some background:
My Dad had become something of a football legend in his hometown. Once returning for a reunion decades later, one elderly gentleman told him that the most exciting football he had ever watched, professional, college and otherwise, was when he watched my Dad on the field in high school. My Dad had made Kentucky All-Star, and had earned nicknames such as “greased lightning”. But such was not always so.
When he first made the team, he spent most of his first season on the bench. The coach, as well as many other observers, thought he was just didn’t have the natural build and bulk to be competitive on the field. “Those other boys will break your legs”, was the kind of jaunts he would hear. However, during the summer months, he would implement a plan that would change things dramatically. You see my Grandfather owned orange groves down in Florida, and would take the family down there each summer, tending to the groves. During those summers in a 1950’s Florida, you would have found my Dad in those orange groves, and it would have been a peculiar sight. What he would do is run directly at an orange tree, then just before making contact he would cut and change direction, moving to the left or the right of the tree. He practiced this over and over and over again, until he was able to develop the skill of actually accelerating on the cut. In telling me this story, he said that he got to the point where he could feel the edges of the leaves on the trees brushing the sides of his arms on the cut. The next fall arrived, and with it the start of football season. The day finally arrived that my Dad was put onto the field and subsequently intercepted a pass, taking the ball and heading toward the goal posts. What happened next became football history for that high school. He would run directly at the opposing team players, boys of mammoth stature and frame compared to my Dad, all meaning to mow him down in short order. To their utter shock and surprise he would come right at them, then would cut away, accelerating on the cut. Just as in the orange groves, he could feel the edges of their fingers brushing his arms as they reached out for him. He did this again and again, rushing his way to the goal and making a winning touchdown.
He did not possess the size and strength of those he was going toe-to-toe with. So what was it gave him the ability to win over those literally crushing odds? First, he was creative. Spending those summers in Florida, he could have just worried about the next season, or become despondent and just quit. He could have tried to play by the same “rules” as everyone else, done all the same things as his opponents (and teammates), tried to compete as is and would have most likely failed. Instead he got to thinking about what he had or could do that they did not. What he came up with was something no one else was doing, something that he could do, and something that would even the playing field. The other thing he did was practice. He was not born with this talent. If he had only thought about doing it, he would have failed. If he had only practiced when he felt like it, or not had practiced enough, he would have also failed. But he did practice, again and again and then again. He practiced until he could feel the edges of the leaves just barely brushing the edges of his upper arms knowing, and correctly so, that the same would be true with the enormous linebackers coming at him out on the field.
As inventors, I think we can learn a lesson from this story of a young high school football player all those years ago. As independent inventors, we sometimes face crushing odds in the marketplace. Competitors, like those mammoth linebackers, are coming at us, and they are a lot bigger than we are. We don’t have their resources. We don’t have a lot of things that they have. But we can get creative. We can think as creatively (and many times even more so) than those big guys. And once we figure out how to even that playing field and give ourselves that needed edge over the competition, we need to practice. Even if we are to farm this work out to another, we need to be so intimately familiar with it that we can communicate, implement and work with others in a way that fosters a successful venture, not to “manage by abdication”, which generally leads to certain failure. If there is a skill we’re lacking in any of the steps necessary to become a successful inventor, we need to find out what that is, how to do it and then practice it over and over and over and over again. And then we need to practice some more. This practice can be empowering. Once you become savvy or skilled at a new core competency, you own it. You also no longer fear it. Uncertainty, fear and confusion are rendered null and void. Those big boys coming at you can’t break your legs if they reach out and can only brush your upper arms with the edges of their fingers. And you can’t fear them if you know that.
So get creative and practice! And practice until you can feel the edges of those leaves brushing the sides of your arms.
My Dad once told me that he could take all that he gained by playing football, add a dollar and it would buy him a cup of coffee. I beg to differ.