How top founders always perform at their best

I once had a friend who briefly played baseball in the minor leagues. I saw a few news stories online that talked about his potential, so I was curious why he was selling shoes at Timberland’s instead.

One day he said something that clued me in.

“I can only perform when the stakes are high,” he told me. “Without pressure, it’s hard to focus.”

Ah, I realized, no wonder he didn’t go very far. The great performers of the world can’t rely on external conditions to be motivated. They have to be able to perform at their best, regardless of circumstances. 

Contrast my friend with Mike Mussina, a major-league pitcher with more than 250 wins. When he was a kid, his dad painted a strike zone on the barn and Mike would practice, imagining he was pitching in the major leagues.

Now, as a professional baseball player, when he’s actually pitching in those high-stakes situations, he does the opposite. He reduces the pressure by imagining himself back on the farm pitching to the strike zone on the barn. In this way, regardless of the actual circumstances, he calibrates his response in order to deliver his best performance.

Psychologists call this “arousal control:” being able to regulate your mental and physical energy in a specific situation.

And it applies just as much to founders when they’re pitching to investors.

Too often, I see founders letting their emotions dictate how they perform.

If they’re feeling desperate, their arousal level gets too high and they come off aggressive or needy.

If founders are feeling ambivalent, they won’t muster the required focus to prove their conviction.

In fact, it matters much less than you think whether it’s a difficult funding environment or a bubble.

VCs care more about how you think, how strong your passion is for solving the problem you’ve identified, and whether you believe you have what it takes to change the world.

Being able to regulate your energy means circumstances don’t determine your state of mind, you do.

If you’re feeling anxious, simulate a more low-key situation. When one of my clients was preparing for an important pitch, I suggested he talk about his company as if he were at a bar with a friend — immediately his delivery became less tense and more natural. 

Conversely, when you’re repeating the same pitch for the 100th time to the friend of a friend, you can imagine the stakes are high to pump yourself up.

It’s not about “faking it ’til you make it.” You’re simply determining your “state of being.”

Still, it’s not the typical way we operate so it does take practice.

In my Founders Evolving Faster program, founders identify their optimal arousal level and create a system for achieving it consistently and regularly. They feel less reactive, more in control. If you want to know when the doors open in early 2023, join the wait list here.