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LETTERS TO A YOUNG ENTREPRENEUR: LESSONS FROM THE LIFE OF MUHAMMAD ALI

June 13, 2016

 

The morning of Friday, June 3rd I, along with much of the world, mourned for the loss of a man I didn’t personally know.  Typically, when a celebrity passes, I send up a prayer of peace for their families and then I continue with my day—it’s not something I think about outside of reading the news. But when I rolled over to a text informing me about the passing of the Champ, I didn’t move from my comfortable spot in my bed, I lay still and my eyes watered.  I was surprised at myself, and did not realize how much the life of Muhammad Ali had affected me.

 

I have never had the honor of meeting him, but it felt like I had. It felt like the passing of a distant relative that I may have met at a family function as a child once or twice, who had maybe given me a piece of candy and called me “pretty girl.” Who knew I was a bookworm as a child, and had a funny little inside joke with me about it. A distant relative who was the pride of my family, even though we rarely saw him. But, Muhammad Ali was not my relative, he was a living legend whose “heyday” had passed several years before my birth.

 

As I watched news coverage of his life, clips of old interviews, scrolled through the Instagram timelines of his beautiful daughters, and did random Google searches on various things related to the self-proclaimed G.O.A.T., it occurred to me that, as many have said, Ali’s death affected me emotionally because his life had affected me so deeply. I was thinking about what he stood for, and as I am four months into this life of full time entrepreneurship, I realized there were so many things everyone who is on this journey (no matter how long) can pull from his life.

 

“If they can make penicillin out of moldy bread, they can sure make something out of you.”

 

Lesson 1: Start With A Pain 

I’ve come across the story of how Muhammad Ali first became interested in boxing.  His bike was stolen when he was 12, and after reporting the theft to a local police officer, he mentioned that he wanted to beat up the person who had stolen his bike.  In what turned out to be a beautiful twist of fate, the officer was also a trainer for young boxers.  As an entrepreneur, your business idea was birthed from an inconvenience, a “pain,” something that interrupted your life and the lives of others. If you’ve been in business for years, or even for a few months, you know that what you provide must satisfy a need and solve a problem. Chances are you also started your business from a personal pain, and like Ali, the best thing you can do is get your idea in front of the right person—for him it was a boxing coach wrapped in a police officer, for you it can be an old contact or a new.

“I hated every minute of training, but I said ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.’”

 

Lesson 2: Don't Be Afraid To Train and Learn What You Don't Know 

This is my favorite quote by Ali.  He trained for hours, daily to sharpen his skills as boxer, he started with the desire to beat up a thief, and moved to training for the Olympics, as his skills grew, so did his vision for his life and, ultimately, where his life as a boxer could truly take him. While Ali had natural athletic talent, he could never have become the level of fighter he was had he not trained and developed the technical skills to take his talent to the next level. In much the same way, as a business owner, we cannot be afraid to first admit to ourselves what we don’t know, and then work diligently to sharpen our skills.  While you may have talents and experience that lend themselves to your credibility in your field, you have to be diligent about staying on trend, and staying tuned in to what the world is wanting and where the world is going. Through webinars, industry specific training programs, podcasts, seminars, conferences, or just picking the brain of a mentor over coffee or lunch--learning never stops, and "school is never out for the pro." 

"I am the greatest, I said that even before I knew I was."

 

Lesson 3: Celebrate Your Victories 

Among his numerous professional accolades and accomplishments (Olympic Gold medal, turning pro, beating Liston in 64 to become the Heavyweight Champion of the World, and much much more), Ali was never afraid to celebrate his wins. As an entrepreneur, it is important that you remember to celebrate your wins. The business of self-business can quickly become stressful, lonely and in a world where you’re constantly exposed to the success of others, you can quickly feel like you’re falling behind the curve. Signing up a new client, collecting a payment from a client, building a new website, generating new leads, talking to prospective clients—these are wins, as each of these things moves you closer to your goal of a thriving successful business. Never be afraid to pause and pat yourself on the back, and use that win as fuel to propel you toward the next step.

 

 “Braggin' is when a person says something and can’t do it. I do what I say.”

 

Lesson 4: Maintain Your Confidence 

Ali exuded cockiness, arrogance, youthful hubris, and whatever else you may want to call his extremely high level of self confidence.  Entrepreneurs must be confident in themselves and in their decisions. I once heard someone say you cannot be successful in entrepreneurship without ego, I’ve found that to be true.  This is not to say that you should around obnoxiously bragging about yourself, and making others feel small—in fact, I would argue that is the opposite of true confidence.  Ali’s proclamation of being the greatest, was after hours and hours and years and years of disciplined training and study of his craft.  In the stories of his family and friends, Ali is described as a man who could make people feel like they could do anything. That’s true confidence, shining your light so that others may shine theirs. As you grow your business, you will make some decisions that may turn out not be the right ones, so then, you turn around and you make another decision.  “Go confidently in the direction or your dreams”—it’s the only way to go!

 

“The man who views the world at 50 the same as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.”

 

Lesson 5: Embrace New Techniques and Adapt 

After a three and half year hiatus from boxing, Ali’s movements in the ring were different.  According to his doctor, Ali wasn’t able to dance around and move in the same way as before, in light of this the champ developed a technique he coined the “rope a dope,” and went to work putting it in play in the ring. The move allowed him to conserve energy and tire out his opponent.  By being honest with himself about the change in his abilities, Ali was able to adapt and implement new techniques that kept him in the game. In the world of business, things will change, and one of those things may eventually be you—this doesn’t mean you have to get out of the industry, it just means you have to adapt, embrace change, and develop new techniques.  

"Hating people because of their color is wrong. And it doesn't matter which color does the hating. It's just plain wrong."

 

 

Lesson 6: Maintain Your Values, Don't Be Afraid to Commit To Them 

Upon his return to the US from the Summer Olympics in Rome, Ali was denied service in restaurants and openly referred to as the “Olympic n*****.”  Legend has it he threw the medal in the river, whether true or not, Ali’s rejection of having won a medal on behalf of a country in which it was acceptable to not serve him because of the color of his skin, was a direct demonstration of his values.  Ali valued himself as a person, and came to realize that something was amiss when he could be both the pride and the shame of a nation.  A couple of years after that experience, Ali converted to Islam, he also opposed the Vietnam War, in the 1990s he negotiated the release of American soldiers, and the list goes on, but most importantly, he made decisions in which he took a stand (no matter how popular or unpopular), and he never looked back. In the world of entrepreneurial pursuits, there will be situations, people and opportunities that come your way that do not align with your value system. The conditions won’t feel right, either because it’s not the right time, it’s not happening in the right way, it’s not the right amount of money or you just feel like the “vibe” is wrong. Whatever it is, if the circumstances do no align with your values and the values of your business, you cannot be afraid to walk away or stand firm in your “no.”  

 

"Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth."

 

 

Lesson 7: Above All Else, Live A Life Of Gratitude By Living Your Life For Others 

In the days since his passing, I’ve seen many networks broadcast the clip of Ali responding to a little boy about what he’s going to do when he stops boxing—Ali’s response is longwinded, but at the heart of it is altruism.  He talks about productivity and getting into heaven. Regardless of what you believe, the key to happiness is understanding that there are things greater than yourself for which you must live. To take it one step further, it is understanding what a privilege it is to get to take part in that which is greater than you.  When you understand this you are grateful and you take steps to make sure that the mark you leave on the world goes beyond your business accomplishments. Ali was a speaker, a mentor, a philanthropist, a champion outside of the boxing arena, and thus an inspiration to us all.

While I wasn’t privy to a personal relationship with Mr. Muhammad Ali, I count myself among the millions of lucky people who had the privilege to be alive while he lived. My generation didn’t get to see his legendary boxing matches live, but we did get to see him gracefully overcome the limitations of Parkinson’s.  In interviews, in photos, in the walk with the Olympic torch, his body may not have been floating and stinging, but his spirit was wrestling with an alligator, tussling with a whale, handcuffing lighting, and throwing thunder in jail. Rest in Power and thank you for a life well lived. 

 

 

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