In the 1999 British Open at Carnoustie in Scotland—dubbed “Car-nasty” for its unforgiving layout—a Frenchman, a journeyman, an everyman named Jean van de Velle pressed his tee into the ground of the final hole with a three-shot lead over the field.
Which, in golf, is like having a three-turn lead in tic-tac-toe.
For competitors, commentators and spectators, what they were witnessing was evident: the opening salvo of a 487-yard foregone conclusion.
That he would win the tournament.
Birdie. Par. Bogey. Double-bogey. Any of them would etch van de Velle’s name onto the Claret Jug, the oldest, most prestigious prize in the sport. And no one would have faulted him for playing it safe. Three 7-irons and three putts. Four pitching wedges and two putts. Sacrebleu! He probably could have built a time machine, gone back 100 years, and returned with a jigger and a mashie niblik to get the job done.
But he didn’t. Instead, the man, who had never before contended in a major championship, reached into his bag and pulled out the hardest club to hit straight, the driver.
And snap-hooked it left.
The shot, miraculously, was so bad it was good. Or at least playable, coming to rest on a peninsula of grass near the tee box of the previous hole, surrounded on three sides by a stream. Van de Velle could have, having just averted disaster, halved the remaining 200 yards with a sand wedge, leaving him an easy-peasy approach for the second half.
But he didn’t. Instead, the man, who had played the match of his life up until now, reached back into his bag and pulled out the second-hardest club to hit straight, the 2-iron.
And banana-sliced it right.
Putting the “fore!” into that foregone conclusion, van de Velle’s ball ricocheted off the grandstand façade, and settled at the bottom of some hay-high rough. He then fatted his next shot into the very stream he had avoided earlier. He then gave serious consideration to the ludicrous notion of hitting the submerged ball—actually removing his socks and shoes and rolling up his pant legs!—before coming to his senses and pulling it out of the hazard for a one-stroke penalty.
He then duffed his next shot into a sand trap. He then blasted it on the green and rolled in a putt from six and a half feet away.
For a seven. Triple bogey. Tied for the lead.
Thirty minutes later, he would lose in a playoff.
Everyone who knows golf knows the story of Jean van de Velle. But do you know who won the British Open that year? Or the year before or the year after?
Yeah. Makes two of us, because in sport—win, lose or implosion—it’s boldness that resonates forever.
Same goes for art. Or music. Or life or love.
Amazon flowed a river of red for years before its waters and its fortunes went into the black. Tesla has never made a profit. Ditto Twitter and Snapchat. And Uber? Uber bleeds money from every tailpipe in its carmada. Google makes oodles of cash, but it’s all directly or indirectly from searching. Google Glass, Google Buzz, Google Wave and Google Video—just to name a fewgle—set fire to billions of dollars as these products and services flopped in the marketplace.
Meh. So what?
“Scared money never wins” is an expression in poker that means if you are afraid to take risks, you are destined to lose. It may take a while, but eventually and inexorably, the tide and time of the game will pick you apart and leave you with nothing.
This applies to companies as well. You’ve got to constantly take chances, even longshots. Name a great company, an enduring company that every once in a while doesn’t do something that leaves you scratching your head.
Apple, a computer company, revolutionized personal electronics.
Netflix revolutionized not only the way television content is distributed, but also the way it is created.
IBM revolutionized itself. The company today makes most of its money from consulting services, not from selling business machines, which is the “BM” in its name, right Watson?
Companies that refuse to change (yes, Blockbuster, we’re looking at you) or fail at changing (don’t know why you’re laughing, General Electric) wind up like a lot of chip-leaders do in poker: eventually walking off the table with their heads down.
Now, of course, this doesn’t mean companies should go all-in all the time. That would be insane. (Fun, but insane.) Measure your risks, as you would your medicine, before taking them. Model out the possible outcomes, and the contingent outcomes, unintended and otherwise, to get the full scope of what could happen.
But recognize the business butterfly effect: There is no way you can predict the effect of every cause, the consequence of every intention. Sometimes the butterflies are sweet and friendly (e.g., Pfizer created Viagra by accident), and sometimes they will turn venomous and sting you in the ass (e.g., the Campana company in 1982 launched a diet candy that was called—wait for it—“Ayds”).
Wow, is that the all-time bad beat or what?
Well, next to van de Velle, of course.
Keep fighting. Keep experimenting. Keep inventing new things and keep re-inventing yourself. Remember the old adage that if you’re not failing, you’re not trying hard enough.
People will mock you. They will second-guess you. They will Monday-morning-quarterback you when you fail and rationalize your success as luck.
But they won’t forget you.