In elementary school, I looked forward to science projects because they meant time in the basement workshop with dad. Plenty of kids get help with homework from their parents. But not every dad is a mechanical engineer who worked on naval missile defense for Sperry and the black box vibrational control mechanism at Brookhaven National Labs. With his brilliant mind behind me, I perpetrated the massive SNAFU that is the subject of this Letter.
A quick note before we dive in: Many of you have asked where you can see Urbach Letter back-issues. They’re available here along with other writing I don’t deem important enough for your inbox.
I’ve had plenty of high-profile failures in my few decades on Earth. This is the story of the most embarrassing and needless defeat I inflicted on myself. With all the decks stacked in my favor, I fumbled the ball so violently that the experience still factors into my decision-making process 20 years later.
Dad and I spent hours looking at trebuchet plans online, and settled on a good-looking design. We painstakingly measured and cut lengths, and assembled it over weeks in the basement. When it was done, our trebuchet was a fire-breathing monster. We tested various counterweights until it was pelting the living room wall with deadly consistency.
On the day of the science fair, we arrived and set up the trebuchet. It put my less fortunate pre-pubescent competitors to shame. From watching their performances, I knew we would double their distance easily.
I pulled the firing pin and looked “downrange” (down-gymnasium), expecting gasps and envy. Instead, I heard a thunk behind me, and our ammunition barely tumbled out of the great machine. Confused, I set it up for a second attempt and yanked the firing pin again. Same result.
No more attempts were allowed. I didn’t have enough distance to even qualify. The moment passed in slow motion as I realized I hadn’t set the machine far enough from the wall. Its sling was smacking the wall on the backswing, and not traveling through. It was too late.
100 hours of work undone in 2 minutes.
In the days that followed, two lessons made themselves crystal clear. First, testing is not practice. Second, doing the same thing twice expecting a different result is the definition of insanity.
Luckily, my ignominy didn’t last long. I got myself straight, started working in more serious science labs, and put together a string of international science competition wins that would please any hopeless goody 2 shoes.
The trebuchet taught me to make sure my preparation was honored in performance. It taught me to take my time when troubleshooting live. But most importantly, it taught me that Murphy lurks around every corner. His law isn’t a fate that befalls us, but rather a challenge — to find and ferret out all of his hiding holes before he can strike at the most inopportune moment.
This recipe works just as well for acing high-stress pitches as it does for winning science fairs:
- Repetition. Testing is for calibration. Repetition is for practice. You cannot expect your calibrated results to be evinced in performance if you haven’t repeated them to a statistically significant degree. The more of your pitch you have by heart, the more you can focus on your conversation partner, move around the room, and relax in the moment. There is no replacement for repetition. The muscle memory you build will remove the most important variable from what is sure to be a high-stress situation.
- Audience. There’s a hard limit to how much useful practice we can do on our own. Having an audience present, no matter how ill-informed or sympathetic, will force you to practice more realistically. You’ll need to look them the in the eyes, engage with them, acknowledge their role in the scene. Have a friend hold you accountable — 3 rounds of practice a day until you no longer get flustered midway through. If you’re flustered in front of a friendly, do you think you’ll magically smooth out in front of a crucial counterpart?
- Disruption. Find your gym wall, and practice with it. Where is Murphy hiding? Schedule interruptions during your repetitions. Change locations. Change times of day. Change mental states. Keep Google alerts on for recent news or research topics that could be brought up to blindside you. If you’re an expert, you’ll be held to an expert standard. And you should certainly be an expert in your own business. That means expert performance, and expert ability to handle disruptions fluidly.
Cool Thing of the Week:
In one of the best podcasts ever recorded, Jamie Foxx famously told Tim Ferriss that “Man, I’m trying to tell you the pull-up bar is everything.” He’s right. For general upper body and core fitness, nothing beats the pullup. But practicing wide-grip strict pullups on a simple bar is limiting. I like rotating between kettlebell work, wide-grip pullups, neutral grip pullups, L-sits, and pushups for my daily workouts.
I keep coming back to this $25 bar because it’s cheap, it’s light, it fits in nearly any doorjamb without installation, and it has the neutral grips which are key to developing my miniature biceps and preventing shoulder girdle injury. When Holly and I flew across the country and back this winter, precious plane space was reserved for this bar because it’s that important to my health and happiness.
Get /Giphy With it:
Useful JPEG to send to colleagues:
After years building startups in NYC, and a stint helping McKinsey & Co. develop their startup accelerator, I’m now leading the charge @ Brandt & Co., a boutique consultancy serving investors and founders in the early-stage ecosystem.
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