Don’t take yourself too seriously — Yes, our jobs are very important. Yes, the pressure to succeed is very high, especially when you’ve raised a bunch of money or charged a customer for a product or service. But there is a difference between “more” and “less” important things that happen on a day-to-day basis, and you have to be able to discern between them. As a leader and a manager, you have to show your team how to sometimes laugh things off, be self-deprecating, or simply chalk up a less-than-desirable outcome to bad luck… and move on. Taking yourself too seriously can have a debilitating effect on future performance, because you’ll get in your own head and struggle to perform in even the least-stressful moments. Having a high bar is one thing, but the inability to “keep it light” from a mood and morale perspective can also hinder the team’s ability to perform in the face of pressure and stress.
As a part of our series about “Optimal Performance Before High Pressure Moments”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Derek Belch.
Derek Belch is the founder and CEO of Strivr, the leading provider of Immersive Learning solutions. Derek developed his vision for Strivr while getting his Masters in Virtual Reality and serving as an assistant football coach at Stanford University. With a passion for sports and expertise in immersive technology, Derek set out to reinvent and shape the future of how people learn. From the athlete to the enterprise, Strivr is now partnering with leading Fortune 1000 companies to elevate performance through immersive experience.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
Sure! I grew up in San Diego, CA, and attended Torrey Pines High School, one of the larger schools in the area and only a few miles from the ocean… so not a bad place to live! Thanks to a sports-loving family, I was always athletically-minded. From a young age through high school, I played competitively in everything from football to soccer to baseball, and even golf. After high school, I was fortunate enough to attend Stanford University, where I was a member of the football team for five years. While those were not the best years for Stanford as it pertains to wins and losses, I made life-long friends and learned a ton of valuable lessons that I still carry with me to this day. My time at Stanford also, in an indirect way, set me up for Strivr’s founding in 2015.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career as an entrepreneur or business leader? We’d love to hear the story.
I’ll do my best to cram this answer into what I’m sure is a strict word-count, but here we go!
After my undergrad years at Stanford, I was fortunate to get my “first job” at the consulting firm Booz Hamilton back home in San Diego. While my time at Booz was fruitful and productive in many ways, the best thing about that job was that it showed me, at that point in my life, consulting, or any “big company” job for that matter, just wasn’t the best fit for me. So, I started dabbling in entrepreneurial things in my spare time (nights/weekends) and ultimately decided to hit the “reset” button on my career and attend business school at USC Marshall, focusing on entrepreneurship as much as I could.
In an interesting twist, as I worked my way through the MBA, my attention started to turn to what I would do after business school… back into the corporate world or start my own company? The “interesting” part of that journey was that I did neither. That’s because I continued to have this thought that if I didn’t see coaching before I turned 30, I’d regret it forever. So, I listened to my heart, accelerated my MBA to finish a semester early, and returned to Stanford to coach for the football team for two years.
Turns out the only way to get the coaching job was to be a graduate assistant, meaning I’d be a full-time coach while also being a full-time masters student. While at Stanford, I approached (head coach) David Shaw and pitched him on a unique idea for my thesis that I felt could also potentially help the team… training football players using Virtual Reality. He was open to anything that could help the team get better, with the added benefit of helping me with an academic requirement, so off I went on the project. Well, at the end of two years, the project was so successful that David sat me down and essentially told me to get the heck out of there. “You’re a great coach, but if I were you, I’d get out of here, and go start a company… coaching isn’t going anywhere, but you have a golden opportunity right now. I’d also love to be your first investor, if you’ll let me.” Wow, talk about a crazy turn of events!
After thinking about everything and talking to my wife and parents, I figured “why not?!?!”… when else in life would I have the “perfect storm” of starting a business in sports and technology, while having the backing of someone who is among the best in their field? I decided to take a leap of faith and do it, and thus Strivr was born. Today, almost six years later, Strivr is the leader in a growing and exciting field using Virtual Reality for employee development. In addition to all of the sports teams we work with, we’re the leading provider of Immersive Learning solutions for Fortune 1000 companies including Walmart, Verizon, and FedEx Ground. To date, we’ve trained more than one million employees across our customer base… and we’re just getting started!
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?
I’ve always had a tremendous support system at home. My dad is from a coal-mining town in western Pennsylvania and my mom is from a small town in Canada where the biggest attraction today is the local gaming house! Both of them were the first generation to go to college in their respective families, so from a young age they instilled the values of education and hard work, among many other moral principles that I feel blessed to have ingrained in me.
I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the tremendous support I’ve had from my wife, Amelia, throughout the last decade. From the time we got engaged to our five year wedding anniversary, the following things happened: 1) I finished my MBA; 2) We moved to Stanford for the coaching job; 3) I started Strivr; 4) We had two children. The common themes among each of those? Lots of hard work by me and essentially no income to go with it! Amelia worked the entire time (and still does today), and pretty much carried our family, financially, through the first several years of our marriage. And she did it all with a smile on her face the entire time. That kind of support in a marriage is rare, but absolutely necessary for any entrepreneur who eventually gets their business to a place where it is sustainable over the long haul.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
If I had to pick one I’d say “pricing” is an interesting topic that is a constant work-in-progress and something that I continue to always wonder about as we move the business forward. What I mean by that is pricing can drive an entrepreneur crazy in many different ways. If our product/service is selling like crazy, are we too cheap? If it’s not selling at all, are we too expensive? Or is there something else going on? Are we leaving money on the table? Are we charging too much and missing out on the opportunity for more customers? It’s something that I think about a lot, and a topic on which I have experienced a wide range of emotions several times over the last six years. While I wouldn’t say we’ve made many bona fide pricing “mistakes”, there are definitely some things I would have done differently if we had gotten a chance for a mulligan.
The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?
While I was in business school, I had lunch with one of my Stanford professors, Gary Pomerantz, who gave me what I consider to be the most important advice I’ve ever received. As we were eating, I talked about all of my grand life plans, all of the ideas I had and wanted to pursue, and all of the things I wanted to achieve professionally. Then I told him about this girl I was dating, and that I didn’t want to propose until I had more “figured out” professionally. He stopped me there and said, “Derek, let me tell you something… the right partner won’t slow you down, she’ll only make things better along the way. Trust me, the last thing you want in life is accomplishing a bunch of wonderful things and not having anyone to celebrate it with. Get your personal foundation in place, first, and then go take on the world professionally.”
My wife and I celebrated our sixth wedding anniversary this year, and we’ve been together for eleven years when considering the time before getting married. We have two amazing young boys who are five and two, respectively. While running a company does take a lot of time, effort, and attention, I generally make it a priority to put family first and be fully “present” at home outside of core working hours of roughly 9 AM to 5 PM. I make breakfast and dinner for my kids several days a week and take them to school as often as I can (whenever I’m not traveling). I won’t sacrifice being a husband and father, first, over anything else, and it’s far more rewarding than anything we’ve accomplished at Strivr over the last six years (as great as that has also been!).
So what advice would I give a young person or a budding entrepreneur? Gary’s words ring true time and time again… it is possible to put family first and also run a successful business, you just have to make it a priority.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
While his work can be somewhat polarizing for some people, I am a fan of most of Malcom Gladwell’s books. Outliers, in which Gladwell talks about the “10,000 hours” rule for becoming an expert at something, is something that has always had a strong impact on me. Even though the “10,000 hours” notion is hotly debated, and far from perfect, the takeaway for me is that success is not by accident. Anyone who is operating at the top of their craft, no matter the field, has put the time in, plain and simple. It’s hard to achieve immense success in anything without time and effort.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
Going to reuse the quote I shared from my Stanford professor, Gary Pomerantz, because it was so impactful for me. “The right partner won’t slow you down, they’ll only make things better along the way. Get your personal foundation in place, first, and then go take on the world professionally.”
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
My current and most exciting project right now is the company that I founded, Strivr. Strivr (as I briefly mentioned above) is a leading Immersive Learning solution, and our goal is to revolutionize how people train and perform. The virtual reality (VR) technology gives employees a “flight simulator”-like experience, where they are immersed in a scenario and can learn by doing. Not only does our technology help employees be engaged, better prepared, and develop new skills faster, it gives them real-time, data-driven feedback.
Beyond the employee, we see Strivr’s solution having a ripple effect all the way out to the end customer. Better trained employees are calmer, more knowledgeable and able to provide better service and overall experiences to customers.
OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. As a business leader, you likely often face high stakes situations that involve a lot of pressure. Most of us tend to wither in the face of such pressure and stress. Can you share with our readers 3 or 4 strategies that you use to cope with the burden of stress?
Take care of your physical and mental health.
When I was a football coach for two years at Stanford, it was pretty shocking to me to see how many coaches across the football world wouldn’t “practice what they preached” as it pertains to health and fitness. What I mean by this is coaches, at every level of any sport, constantly push their players to take care of their bodies… train hard, eat well, sleep well, stay hydrated, etc… as these are the ways to best prepare for peak performance on “game day”, when it matters most. Well, what about the coaches? Why are we working from 7 AM to midnight and eating pizza and drinking soda while watching film until we can hardly keep our eyes open? What about our performance on “game day”, or every day for that matter? It was a double-standard that not only didn’t resonate with players but also, in my opinion, led to suboptimal decision-making and, more generally, a lifestyle for coaches that wasn’t sustainable.
Not only do I take health and fitness very seriously — I try to get 7+ hours of sleep every night and exercise five or six days per week — but I also make sure that our company knows how much I want all of us to prioritize these things. I talk a lot about how “burnout” is not something we’re going to succumb to at Strivr, and that physical and mental health are essential across our workforce. When I travel with co-workers, I’m often the one planning a morning workout before meetings or making sure we pick restaurants that are health-conscious. I try to “walk the walk” on this topic, and I hope it’s having a positive impact on our entire team.
Get a coach
Myself and our entire leadership team has been working with an executive coach for almost three years. We all do weekly individual sessions with him and he also occasionally attends team meetings. Why? Because I view our work with him in a similar way to how athletes prepare for a game. From my perspective, the work we are putting in with him as individuals is “practice”, and our team meetings are the “game”. Therefore, it’s important for him to see how we “show up” in high stress situations, to see whether the work in “practice” is paying off. We’ve seen our team take tremendous strides in our team meetings thanks to coaching, and have also seen how this work has translated to other interactions, such as with customers, in board meetings, and general day-to-day conversations.
Don’t take yourself too seriously
Yes, our jobs are very important. Yes, the pressure to succeed is very high, especially when you’ve raised a bunch of money or charged a customer for a product or service. But there is a difference between “more” and “less” important things that happen on a day-to-day basis, and you have to be able to discern between them. As a leader and a manager, you have to show your team how to sometimes laugh things off, be self-deprecating, or simply chalk up a less-than-desirable outcome to bad luck… and move on. Taking yourself too seriously can have a debilitating effect on future performance, because you’ll get in your own head and struggle to perform in even the least-stressful moments. Having a high bar is one thing, but the inability to “keep it light” from a mood and morale perspective can also hinder the team’s ability to perform in the face of pressure and stress.
Aside from being able to deal with the burden of stress, can you share with our readers 3 or 4 strategies that you use to optimize your mind for peak performance before high pressure, high stress situations?
Sleep and exercise
To me, this one isn’t complicated. While positive sleep habits (7+ hours per night) and exercise (five or six days a week) are important no matter the circumstance, I find that optimizing for these things ahead of a “high stress” situation (i.e. a board meeting) helps put me in the best possible headspace. And as one of my former football coaches once said… “proper hydration starts two or three days before the game, not the night before.” How does this apply to business? Well, I don’t exactly succumb to the notion that getting a good night’s sleep the day before a big meeting is a recipe for success. Rather, a lifestyle that has made a habit out of proper diet, exercise, and sleep is one that constantly ensures you’re in a good place, both physically and mentally, no matter what the day throws at you.
Do your research.
I find that high pressure situations become more stressful and difficult to handle if you feel that you are walking into the unknown. When I know I am headed towards a challenge, I make sure I do as much research as possible. What is the scope of the problem? What are the specific roadblocks and hurdles that I need to overcome? What strategies make most sense in this situation? What possible scenarios could play out, and how should I react to each one? What kind of resources or additional assets could help make my performance better? When I was a football coach we would spend the majority of our time analyzing our opponents in order to figure out the best strategies. The business world is no different. Doing your research will always help set you up for peak performance.
Have the right team in place behind you
This goes back to the previous point I made about getting a coach. Leaders and managers need to know when to get an outside perspective, as an objective and “fresh set of eyes” on things can often yield the best results. Furthermore, it’s important to build a team that can look at things from an objective point of view, rather than “drinking your own kool aid”. In this way, you know that your team is always going to tell it like it is and be striving to win as a team, not caring about who gets the credit.
Do you use any special or particular breathing techniques, meditations or visualizations to help optimize yourself? If you do, we’d love to hear about it.
None that I can think of.
Do you have a special technique to develop a strong focus, and clear away distractions?
As much we all love our smartphones, we’re kidding ourselves if we think these devices are anything but “weapons of mass distraction”. I’m not on social media, and generally try to keep my phone usage to a minimum outside of the times I really need it. The only “notification” my phone ever gives me is a text message… no email, Slack, sports score, news update, etc. I’ll see those things when I want to see them, not when the phone/app wants me to see them. In this way, I never feel like my phone has control over me and that I’m constantly looking at it during times when I’m trying to focus (or even when I’m not). The other positive outcome this has yielded is the way in which we’ve established “communication norms” with our leadership team at Strivr. While I can’t speak for what others do with the notifications on their phones, we have established the protocol that a text message is a “bat signal”, so to speak, that signifies something is truly important and/or requires a timely response. This has been great for our team, allowing us to be empowered to discern between “more” and “less” important things… unless you get a text!
We all know the importance of good habits. How have habits played a role in your success? Can you share some success habits that have helped you in your journey?
I’m an “early to bed, early to rise” person, going to sleep before 10 pm and waking up around 5 AM almost every day (even weekends). One of the best and most specific pieces of advice I can give anyone who is looking to build positive habits into their day is to start from the moment you wake up… as in, don’t hit the “snooze” button on your alarm. When it’s time to start the day… start the day! Don’t lay in bed feeling sorry for yourself or let your mind run wild with all of the things you have to do… get up and get the day going. You’ll be shocked at how this “little” thing is actually a “big” thing when looked at cumulatively, over time. Starting each day off with a “let’s go!” mentality will be foundational to all of the other good habits you are trying to also put into practice.
What is the best way to develop great habits for optimal performance? How can one stop bad habits?
As I said before, build a lifestyle that is made of good habits. Proper diet, exercise, sleep…these are all things you should be striving towards every day. Don’t just try to cram in good habits (like a full night’s sleep) the day before a big meeting or high pressure moment. The key here is consistency. Work on building a lifestyle that constantly ensures you’re in a good place, both physically and mentally, no matter what the day throws at you.
As a business leader, you likely experience times when you are in a state of Flow. Flow has been described as a pleasurable mental state that occurs when you do something that you are skilled at, that is challenging, and that is meaningful. Can you share some ideas from your experience about how we can achieve a state of Flow more often in our lives?
I think I am most often in a state of “flow” when I am doing some form of public speaking. Public speaking has always been a strength of mine and something I enjoy doing, but here’s what’s interesting… I actually don’t practice my presentations that much before I do them. Rather, I ensure that I have exceptional command of the information that I am going to present and spend most of my time preparing by building a narrative and story that I am comfortable with and that feels natural to me. In this way, the actual presentation is more of a rhythmic outpouring of what’s on my mind, rather than a scripted and robotic regurgitation. When I feel this way going into a presentation, I am highly confident that it’s going to go well.
Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
It’s hard to look at our country these days without thinking that we’ve lost our way as it pertains to the “golden rule” in life… treat others as you wish to be treated. I look at a nation that is riddled with issues like crime, antidote, racial tension, domestic violence, and political divisiveness, to name a few, and sometimes I just scratch my head and ask, “why?”. Why do we lie and cheat and steal? Why do we hurt each other, physically and emotionally? Why do we treat someone poorly simply because of the color of their skin, their religious beliefs, or their sexuality? And so on.
I’d love to see a “golden rule” movement, so to speak, where we all look in the mirror, think about how we want to be treated by others, and go act that way to everyone else. I bet our country — and world, for that matter — would be a much better place to live every day if we could all just live by this simple principle.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?
I’d love to play a round of golf with Rory McIlroy. I like how he keeps it real with the media and fans, acts with class on and off the course, isn’t afraid to speak his mind against what might be a popular opinion, and just generally seems like a good person. Oh, and I’d love for him to take a look at my game!
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