Harry Houdini was an illusionist and escape artist who died almost 100 years ago. But what he *did* and what successful startup founders do are more alike than they may seem.
A few days ago I tweeted out a phrase that stuck in my head as I was driving my kids to school (the kids were safely delivered and the car was parked before I hit ‘compose’):
If you know a little bit about Harry Houdini, you’ll appreciate that he wasn’t just an illusionist, but a death-defying escape artist who trained relentlessly to accomplish seemingly impossible feats — holding his breath for over three minutes under water, dislocating his own shoulders to free himself from restraints, regurgitating tiny keys to pick locks while hanging upside down in the dark — all to delight audiences with truly astounding escapes.
Startup founders also work inhumanly hard to make seemingly impossible things appear effortless. They habitually put themselves into “against-all-odds” situations — competing for contracts they have no business winning; taking on massive competitors with tiny, underfunded teams; recruiting co-founders who walk away from safe jobs with huge economics to come work for peanuts in unglamorous, Class C offices — and somehow find ways to win, and keep on winning.
Startups sound glamourous to those who aren’t in them, and — like Houdini’s best illusions — the successful, public feats they accomplish may look easy from a distance.
But behind the curtains, the “magic” gets made in the long, gritty, stomach-churning months and years that founders devote to building things up and ripping them down, over and over, until they’re just plain better than anything else out there.
Harry Houdini was a showman, a salesman and an illusionist — but his success in all those roles was built on a relentless commitment to craft and a willingness to take more risk, more publicly, than anyone else in his field.
Whatever you set out to do in life, dare yourself to “be a Houdini” at it. Win or lose, you won’t regret the journey.