November 5, 2013

TANNIN: The Legend of the Ninja, and What It Says About Entrepreneurship

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One moment that sticks out in my mind this year is when a group of my friends were working on our first upper-level computer science problem set. The first problem set tested us on a new language we were learning for the class, but at a level much higher than was possible to learn after just two lectures. We were warned that the class was over-enrolled and that they were going to try to weed people out. But I don’t think any of us were expecting to be hit with such hard work after only a week.

After spending a couple hours on the first two problems, one of my friends exclaimed, “I understand what they’re doing! This is like a ninja legend, where a man is taking his first exam in ninja school. The test consists of nine impossible questions and one final question that is revealed 45 minutes into the exam. As the exam progresses, more people crack under the pressure, give a lame attempt at cheating, and are failed. When 45 minutes have passed, the instructor adds some conditions to the final question. You can either choose not to take it and quit trying to be a ninja, or you can try to answer it but if you fail you’re forbidden from ever becoming a ninja.”

The whole point of the test is that there is no 10th question. The exam is designed to test your strength and to expose those who don’t have what it takes to be a true ninja. My friend thought that this was a good metaphor for what our first problem set was actually trying to test. In the end, the problem set ended up being doable, but you had to put in at least 15 hours in order to get it.

I think this metaphor translates well to the startup world and the path that every entrepreneur or “wantrepreneur” takes. Anyone can say that they want to be an entrepreneur. But like a ninja, a would-be entrepreneur faces their first “impossible” exam shortly after they leave the comfort of college. The effect of realizing how hard it is to succeed in the startup world and what you have to give up — like sleep, free time, a consistent salary and anxiety-free nights — serves the same purpose as the first nine questions on the ninja exam. The startup world tries to weed out those who aren’t in it for the long haul. The 10th question in startup life is when you’re offered an out into the more comfortable corporate world, or when your company faces an imminent threat of failure. That is the true make or break moment. By that point, you know what you’re life is going be like if you continue down the path you’re on, so in order to continue you have to be totally devoted. After this first test, you’re left with a group of people who are not only bright enough to get the job done, but are also totally willing to go the distance to make their idea or company succeed.

So if you want to be a ninja or an entrepreneur, know that you are taking the road less traveled. You will be constantly tested and can only succeed if you don’t give up that fight for anything.