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A Tale of Two Wonders, Ballet and Startups

Yuan Yuan Tan in Neumeier's The Little Mermaid.  Photo: Erik Tomasson
Yuan Yuan Tan in Neumeier's The Little Mermaid. Photo: Erik Tomasson

“Music is the pleasure the human soul experiences from counting without being aware that it is counting.” 

Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz 

This article is in tribute to my dear friend Yuan Yuan Tan, the prima ballerina, who will soon celebrate her 25th anniversary with SF Ballet on April 19, 2020. She is a personal inspiration.

Years ago, the first time I saw YuanYuan Tan perform, I cried. I was carried away by the performance. Yet, at the time, I was unsure why I was moved.

Much later, we became close friends. We are very different people, yet, our aspirations and work ethics bonded us — tireless hard work and everything-is-possible hope — inherited from our tiger-parents.

My new startup life is exciting yet stressful.  To unwind, every weekend, I meditate and go for a long run. The weekend before last, she invited me to her performance “After the Rain” with Luke Ingham at SF Ballet. I happily took up the offer, as I believed it would be my best meditation moment.

It was indeed. I came to realize why I was brought to tears watching YuanYuan perform. I was drawing the parallels between the art form and the startup life I am living. So what connects these two domains seemingly so far apart?

Precision is science.

The hygiene factor for being the best performer is the technique. The precision of each movement. The perfect synchronization with the music. It is the ultimate representation of the art, and the possibility of growing a performer’s style.

In parallel, the best startups grow through repeatability, scalability, and profitability. To thrive, they wrangle the madness sooner rather than later, create measures, and prove them out. No precision, no sustainable success.

Interpretation is art.

While precision is the bottom line for being the best, the best also strive for a unique and identifiable style. In each performance, this translates into the ballet dancer’s interpretation of the story, the music, and, ultimately, the dance.  Her performance projects onto the audience how YuanYuan feels “After the Rain’, how she sacrifices for love as the “Little Mermaid,” and her transformation into a “Swan.”

In the startup world, we have branding. Through branding, a company establishes how the world should view it and projects that vision onto its customers. Nike goes after athletes with “swoosh-fast”; Adidas represents artists and “cool.” They are both quality shoes. Yet, the fandom is built on religion and brand equity. 

There is no short-cut to short-cuts.

If you are gifted, you stand a good chance of succeeding. But history has proven that a gift is not enough. YuanYuan has practiced 8-12 hours per day, six days per week, for 25 years. That plus seven shows per performance season is what it took to get her where she is today. There is no short-cut to short-cuts. 

The same is true for serial founders, veteran execs, and gifted newcomers. The silicon valley press loves to spotlight under-40 stories. Behind each one has sweat, struggle, and pain we don’t see. Like exercise, you do what you must do every day. You might not see the change right away. You might doubt or want to give up. But stick around, and one day, you are toned up. Inflection points for successes are often not visible. Sweat is the only way to succeed.

Teams take all forms but one principle.

In ballet, there is a choreographer that aligns the movements of the dancers and establishes a tone for the performance.  It is breathtaking when the corps de ballet acts like one. Behind the colorful costumes, the artful choreography, and the diverse group of individuals, we see singularity.

In startups, it is the values that matter — values guide the team and their decisions.  A successful startup is a beautiful thing. Team members all know their place. They know what they stand for. Even when things are chaotic, and goals are continually shifting during the early-day pivots, they stay aligned.

Great leaders establish those values for their companies. Values raise decisions above the individual. It’s not unlike the navy where it is ship first, crew second, and self last. That’s why many COOs of big corporations are veterans. Leaders who establish values and use those to guide decisions succeed because they keep the team first.

Connections between ballet, an art form that touched me deeply, and startup life, a thing which I live every day, really got me thinking.  Talent is the baseline, effort is a necessity, creativity will help you shine, and leadership connects these parts in beautiful ways. 

Time for a ballet hangout, startup leaders!

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