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This day is called the Feast of Crispian. For nearly 600 years, October 25th has been an annual shout out to the underdog; for those with insufficient resources, already exhausted from the slog, yet happily steeling themselves for another round of battle, hoping against hope for success.
That’s life in any technology start-up and we have excellent historical company in this seemingly hopeless pursuit of victory despite insurmountable odds.
At the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, a vastly outnumbered and nearly exhausted English force led by King Henry V defeated the heavily armored and well-rested veteran French army of nearly fifty thousand. The French nobles led the attack with hubris, fully expecting a brief and glorious rout of their English foes. Using a shrewd, rapid sequence of longbow and hand-to-hand tactics, Henry’s Englishmen took aim at the lumbering French mounted nobility. This left the remaining French foot soldiers in disarray, arguing with each other about the next move, while the English continued to wreak havoc. On October 25, 1415, the English won the battle. They lost only five hundred men while the French suffered massive casualties. It was more than a victory. It was a crushing blow by a tiny force of unyielding soldiers.
Shakespeare created a rousing motivational speech in which Harry the King exhorts his tired English troops on the morning before this historic battle. It’s one of my favorite speeches in all of Shakespeare’s plays. Every startup has moments like this – a tiny team pitted against giant, well funded adversaries; yet somehow that small band musters up the courage to press onward and win the day. We few, we happy few, we band of entrepreneurs, today is the Feast of Crispian – Steel yourself and never give up!
Enjoy Kenneth Branagh’s perfect performance of this soliloquy (…and check out the obvious inspiration for Mel Gibson’s rallying cry in Braveheart filmed six years later…)
For those without a multimedia setup, read the glorious Shakespeare text here…and happy St. Crispin’s day!
Where is the king?
The king himself is rode to view their battle.
Of fighting men they have full three score thousand.
There’s five to one; besides, they all are fresh.
God’s arm strike with us! ’tis a fearful odds.
O that we now had here
But one ten thousand of those men in England
That do no work to-day!
KING HENRY V
What’s he that wishes so?
My cousin Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin:
If we are mark’d to die, we are enough
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made
And crowns for convoy put into his purse:
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian:’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.’
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names.
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember’d.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.
When confronted with great uncertainty, our sensory cortex fires into high gear and produces a feeling of fear in our bodies. Chimpanzees have a similar biological mechanism, but at least their fight-or-flight response only activates when confronted by real danger. We humans on the other hand react to our imagined fears with the same ferocity as a life threatening situation. Whether it is fear of failure, rejection, reprisal, or death, it is fear that rules this world.
In the midst of our chimpish lives, seeking some kind of bliss while leaping from fear to fear, every once in a while we encounter someone who stands still and stares willfully into the abyss of doubt. We admire those who can enter into a moment of great uncertainty and risk, and yet will not run. I see this kind of courage every day working with men and women who build and run new ventures. They face enormous doubt and at times experience visceral fear, yet they persevere.
What is it that allows some people to move boldly into doubt while others cower or run away? First, you need a little ego. You must believe your action might lead to a better future. Whether you are like Howard Schultz who built a new kind of coffee company despite all the naysayers that insisted middle-class Americans would never pay $2 for a cup of coffee, or like Rosa Parks who refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger because it just wasn’t right, if you believe that your actions might lead to a better future, you are more willing to risk the consequences of today. Neither Howard nor Rosa was sure of the outcome of their effort. Both faced great uncertainty and economic or personal peril. Yet they each acted because they deemed that the future they sought was worth the risk.
Our inability to know the future often triggers the fight-or-flight response. The human mind, always seeking certainty, then assigns certainty to the undesirable outcome, just as a child at night is sure that the bogey man is in the closet. But until we open the closet, we just don’t know what is in it. The bogey man is in our head.
We all face uncertainty. The root of fear is fighting your doubt. The root of courage is embracing it.
Doubt is not your enemy. Doubt is the source of your creativity. By staring silently and openly into the dark closet of your uncertain future, you discover freedom. Since you can’t know for certain anything that lies in the future, you are completely free to choose today. Fear kicks in when you want to control the outcome. By definition, the riskier the decision or venture, the less control you have of outcome. Most days you can control whether one foot falls before the next as you walk. On the other hand, no matter how hard you try, you cannot control the rain. Nor can you control whether your venture will succeed or fail.
If you relax into your doubt, you will find creativity, hope, and opportunity. And others will witness courage in action.