I grew up in Chicago. I was a troublemaker all throughout my childhood and adolescent years. If you had asked my friends who were least likely to succeed, I am almost sure that I would be at the top or near the top of that list. I was destined for failure. I had to do something. Luckily, I realized the path I was on and corrected it.
20 years later, I am the Managing Director of SennaLabs, a Digital Agency with over 50 talented engineers, designers, and digital consultants. Most of my friends from Chicago still can’t believe how much I’ve changed and how much I have achieved in my life. It’s been a long journey filled with hard work, long hours, and failures.
That journey still continues today. And what I hope to share with you is my very special relationship with motorsports and the lessons I learned from it and how it helped me to turn my life around and give me the necessary focus and work ethic to reach the point that I have reached so far.
Silicon Valley: Riding motorcycles on canyon roads at speeds over 100mph
During the first dot com boom in the late 1990s, I went to Silicon Valley to try to find a job and further my career as a software engineer. After landing a job, the first thing I bought was a Suzuki GSXR 600 RR. A perfectly reasonable purchase. And definitely on the top of my list of necessities for life in the Bay Area.
Continuing on with my juvenile delinquent ways, I quickly became a member of the “Century Club” by being able to ride from one end of a very tight canyon road to another point while averaging 100mph or more. The speed limit there was 35mph. After having failed miserably a few times, and losing some of my skin, I quickly invested in a set of racing leathers. The amount of trouble I got into with that motorcycle is almost legendary amongst my family and friends.
Life was great. I was a software engineer working for the likes of E*Trade, Intel, and Cisco. I had my fancy condo, motorcycle, and a brand new Subaru Impreza. I started racing my Impreza in Rallycross and Autocross. It was at an autocross in some parking lot where I first laid eyes on a formula car in real life. It was a Formula Mazda car. It was love at first sight.
I talked to the owner and found out he was a vice president of some tech company in the valley. He told me that he raced his car in the Formula Mazda series at Infineon Raceway. I asked him how much it cost and what’s the best way to start. He told me that the best Formula One drivers come from go-karting and I should start there.
SpeedRing: The beginning of my life long passion for racing
That same year, the indoor karting business made its way from Europe into the states. Speedring, the first indoor karting facility in the US, opened up in Santa Clara. Indoor karting is fairly expensive. Back then it cost $10-20 per 8-10 minutes. When Speedring first opened, there were lifetime memberships as well. They were all sold out.
One day, I was randomly invited to a members-only night to participate in a race. I was immediately hooked. Go-karting was my crack-cocaine. I couldn’t get enough. I spent thousands and thousands of dollars at Speedring. Luckily someone was selling their membership, I quickly bought it. It was the best investment I’ve ever made.
Winning is important, but how you win is just as important.
Being relatively light at 165 lbs and loving speed and having a high tolerance for risk, I was pretty good at racing. I quickly made my way up in the member’s league at Speedring. I was eventually battling for wins and even winning series championships. I was extremely aggressive. I made a lot of contact with other karts. I was being an ass.
Jim, a member who I befriended and later became a life-long friend, was heavier set and his strategy relied on maximizing the use of his momentum and strategically transferring some of it to those who were actively (or inactively) preventing his advancement through the field. Jim taught me the subtle arts of the “bump-pass”. This is generally considered to be a grey area and not the cleanest of techniques. Early on, I utilized this technique to great effect.
James, a British fellow who had raced karts all his life in the UK, who moved to the US and was running the day-to-day operations at Speedring pulled me aside one day. He told me that some of the members were complaining about my aggressive driving. I thought they were just upset that I was beating them.
I felt that James was trying to get a message across to me. He finally put it in a way that stuck with me for the rest of my life. He said “Rick, you’re fast and talented. But imagine if you could pass people without even touching them and they couldn’t do anything about it. Imagine how good you would have to be to do that. And no one could complain.”.
That was a pivotal moment in my life. That was the first important lesson motorsports taught me. The lesson was: Winning is important, but how you win is just as important. Don’t give other people excuses. Even if you play clean and by the rules, people will play dirty and try to block you and prevent you from achieving your goals. If you can keep your composure and honor, and still beat them even when they are trying to stop you, then no one can take that away from you. Thank you, James! After that, I spent all my time outside of work trying to achieve that level of skill. I was consumed by it. I asked James about racing tactics and how to set people up and pass them without touching them.
In programming, I can think of an example of similar skill. My friend Dan is the best programmer I’ve known. He learned Java and found a production exploit in two weeks. Dan and I used to work at the same company during those days and I noticed that he would go to work fairly early. He would arrive at the office at 6 am and leave by 3 pm. Everyone else usually arrived at 9 am. Dan and I hung out often after work and he was always working on solving problems for our employer. At that time, I was wondering why he was working so hard.
After a while, I noticed that Dan would sometimes leave at 1 or 2 pm. And the management never once asked him why. I later asked Dan about this again. And he told me that he works really hard because he wants to learn and improve. Also, he does it so that he can finish his assignments faster and surprise the management. He told me that he would purposely finish his work ahead of time and when the management asked him what the status was, he would reply “Oh, I’m already done with that. And I’ve also finished this as well…” in a nonchalant way. It was an absolute genius. Dan could do whatever he wanted and the management adored him.
No matter how good you are, you can and should always try to improve.
During the non-member hours, I would race in almost every heat. I would almost always win because I was generally racing against the general public and not members who knew the track. I held the fastest lap record as well. But regardless of that, whenever I got off the track, I would ask James or other staff members what I did wrong and how I could improve.
Winning against unknown drivers and holding the fastest lap record didn’t mean as much as achieving what James had put in my head. I wanted to show those members who complained that they would have zero excuses when I won.
That’s the second lesson motorsports taught me. Even if you’re already the best at something, there’s always room for improvement. You have to consciously make a decision to ask others to mentor you and improve on a daily basis. This is the fastest way to improve. Don’t blame it on the kart, the engine, or the tires. Always look at you. Improving you stays with you forever. You can buy a new engine, but you can’t buy a new you. You can only improve what you have.
Applying the lessons I learned in racing.
Working in Silicon Valley was intense. It was a great experience for me. At first, I was annoyed by the meetings with project managers, product owners, etc. I found myself daydreaming and thinking about how to shave a 1/100th of a second off my best lap time. I was thinking about what techniques I was going to work on at the racetrack after work.
But then I thought to myself, I should apply what I learned in racing to my work. That’s when I realized that I and many of the programmers around me were acting exactly how I acted in kart racing when I first started. We were being arrogant. We were the ones who were doing the programming. We lacked respect for “management”.
Unless that manager came from a very technical background and could understand technology on the same level, I never really gave them that much respect. Many engineers were like that back in the day. And I’m assuming that’s still the case today.
I began to apply my racing mentality and work ethic to programming. I started to be interested in management. I was constantly pushing myself to learn management, critical thinking and analysis skills. This was mutually beneficial because I used what I learned from my professional career to help me gain an edge in motorsports and conversely, I used what I learned in motorsports to gain an edge in my professional career. This is when I start to make big jumps in both my professional and motorsports careers.
As I went up the ranks and participated more and more in long boring strategy meetings, and applying what I learned in motorsports. I started listening and being engaged. That’s when I started learning. I learned that companies succeed because of their planning and strategy. The level of detail, analysis and thought that went into creating products and services to compete in the market was astounding.
I learned that there was more than just programming. You needed a wide array of skills and knowledge to make a tech company successful. The same is true of racing. You can’t just know how to drive. You have to know the physics of racing. You have to know about engines, tires, and how to tune them for optimal performance. You need a long term strategy to win a championship series.
Racing, winning, trophies, girls, and partying. You’re focused on the wrong things.
I was on a two way track. I was continuously trying to improve in my professional life and my motorsports career. As the years went by, I moved up the ladder in both. Now, I have hundreds of trophies from racing go karts, cars, and motorcycles.
When people think of racing, they generally envision wealthy playboys wasting ridiculous amounts of money, partying and womanizing. And to some extent, that is definitely true.
What people don’t see is the amount of hard work, endless nights working cleaning and tuning, changing tires, physical fitness, preparing fuel, packing trailers, buying tires, equipment, etc. For every minute spent on the racetrack, there was probably 5 hours of hard work and preparation. For every trophy you see, there could be years of work to get to that point. A trophy is just a result of a long term accumulation of effort, practice, skill, and commitment to improving one’s self. Focus on that and the trophies, salaries, promotions, fancy cars, and bonuses will come.
Now, I’m “the management” and dealing with a millennial workforce.
In my professional life, I’ve seen a similar trend. It’s always been there. But now it’s worse. Simon Sinek eloquently described it in one of his most famous talks about millennials. Because of technology, everything is so readily available now. Millennials have almost zero patience. Later in the years, when I became “the management”, I also felt the same lack of respect from my subordinates that I had shown earlier in my life towards management.
I’ve had conversations with some people and told them that they were talented and that they should work harder to become an even better version of themselves both professionally and personally. I tried to give them the same lessons that James had taught me at Speedring. I try to convince them to improve themselves and contribute more to the company (which is really improving themselves). They almost always say: “I don’t have time.”, or “I don’t get paid enough.”.
My favorite response is:
If your salary was doubled today, would your contributions and value to the company double as well? What if your salary was tripled?
And when someone has to honestly think about that, the answer is generally going to be no. Yet, most people go around feeling sorry for themselves or resentful because they see others getting paid more. And the strange thing is they refuse to apply the effort and invest the time to improve themselves to make themselves more competitive in the market.
Arrive at 11:30, free lunch, buy some boba tea, answer a few emails, do some work, play some video games, leave by 5:45 pm. I deserve a raise.
It concerns me how today’s millennial workforce has almost no patience, no competitive drive. This is especially true in technology. Millennials expect to show up to work at 11:30 am, be given a free lunch, then go for a long stroll, joke around, come back to the office answer a few emails, play some video games, and then go home at 6 pm. And the general attitude about doing work outside of “normal work hours” is “If I don’t get paid for overtime, I’m not doing it.”. Do you think Michael Jordan, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Tiger Woods, or Bill Gates succeeded by working 8 hours a day? How about that guy who got a promotion when you didn’t? Or how about that girl who left the company and now owns their own company?
Many people in tech see themselves as hourly workers. They are actually salaried workers. What they fail to see is that tech is more like being a physician, or an attorney, or an architect. That’s distinctly different from an hourly worker like an X-ray technician, or plumber. It’s your job to make sure that you are always learning and staying up to date with the latest technologies and skills. It’s your responsibility to improve yourself.
You’re competing against the rest of the market. And that guy or girl at your office who is always working hard and “kissing the bosses ass” by learning new things, working late to meet aggressive deadlines, is going to eventually be so far ahead of you that you will never catch up. How could you possibly compete against them? Think about it. There is someone like that at your office now. Someone who works harder, who learns more, who does more. Make no mistake; You are competing with that person.
As time goes on, and these people are being promoted, given raises, and succeeding. Others wonder why they aren’t. The answer is that no one is going to give you anything for free. It’s your responsibility to work hard and improve yourself. In fact, it’s expected of you. You are getting paid to do so. This is the very essence of capitalism and the free market. Competition is everything.
McKinsey work ethic
Our company recently worked on a digital transformation project with McKinsey. I remember seeing the Associate and Engagement Manager sitting there in the morning every day I arrived at the client’s office at 8:00 am. They had arrived before me. I often stayed until 9 pm at night. The only people left in the office were me and the two girls from McKinsey. It is well known that McKinsey, BCG, and other top consulting firms generally hire Magna Cum Laude (think about the effort it takes to be Magna Cum Laude) candidates from top universities. McKinsey associates work anywhere between 50-80 hours per week. I estimate that those girls worked at least 60-70 hours a week based on my observations during this project. They are salaried, they don’t get overtime, and it is expected that they work that hard AND produce results.
I recently had a discussion with someone at our company. I told them that I see that they have potential. I asked them why they don’t work harder to improve themselves and their contributions to the company. They responded with “If I don’t get paid for overtime, I’m not doing it.”. I asked them if they view themselves as an hourly worker? And if I doubled their salary, would they double their productivity and contributions? The answer was no. You’re not going to magically double your knowledge or speed when your salary is doubled. It works the other way. You show the market that your contributions and value are higher and exceed expectations (aka price, or current salary) and then, and only then, is a higher salary offered to you.
I explained that the McKinsey associate that we both saw at our client’s office probably makes less than the salary as the person I was talking to. The reason I know this is because one of my golf buddies is a McKinsey partner who works at the same office and gave me a rough ballpark for salaries of entry-level associates.
The person I was talking to was surprised to hear this. It was clear that the McKinsey associate worked much longer hours than they did. I think the person expected that the McKinsey associate was paid more. But in reality, they were actually paid more than the McKinsey associate.
Internal Medicine residents in the US usually work 80 hours a week and get paid $40–50K. The average entry-level salary of a Frontend Developer is $58,880. The average salary of an Internal Medicine doctor in the US is $219,020. The average salary of a CTO in the US is 243,919.
Let’s assume it takes roughly 10 years after a bachelor’s degree to finish med school, residency, and four years of work to reach the average salary of an Internal Medicine doctor. 6–10 of those years are going to be 80 hour weeks. If we normalize it down to 40 hour weeks, we basically end up with 16–20 “years” of 40 hour work weeks. That’s roughly how long it takes for someone in tech to become a CTO. The physician put in the hard work upfront and enjoys the benefits earlier and for longer.
“The reason a lot of people do not recognize opportunity is that it usually goes around wearing overalls looking like hard work.” – Thomas Edison
Life is like racing; Most people lose, very few will win, and some will die. And even worse than death, some give up entirely. Don’t focus on the trophies, the professional title, or someone’s salary, or the car they drive. Instead, focus on the enormous hard work, dedication, hardships, and perseverance to achieve what they have achieved. Focus on driving, the winning will come with skill.
There’s a saying about motorcycles and racing “There are those who have crashed and those who will; It’s only a matter of time.”. You will fail. You will crash. You will lose. It’s inevitable. Life is full of challenges. How will you respond? Will you complain about your bad luck? Will you be envious of someone else’s success? Or will you put in the long hours, and hard work that is required to compete and win?
Most people choose not to work hard to improve their situation. They become complacent. They are angry at companies that profit off of their “hard work”. They expect things to be handed to them. Instead, you should always push to improve yourself and be more productive. If you ever watch Formula 1, you will hear the “management” telling the best drivers in the world to “Push. Go faster.”. Even at the pinnacle of motorsports, they are always pushing themselves to be better. Most people choose the easy route and that’s why they will most likely not achieve anything meaningful in their life.
RECAP OF LESSONS
- Even if you’re already a failure, you can change your situation through hard work.
- Always strive to be the best version of yourself. Don’t give others any excuses to blame you for their failures.
- No matter how good you are, you can and should always try to improve.
- Through hard work and determination, you will eventually be rewarded.
- Don’t blame external things, always look at yourself.
- No one will give you anything for free. It’s up to you to earn it.
- Don’t fixate on the end results (salaries, trophies, etc). Focus on the process, mindset, and work necessary to attain such results.
- These are obvious, but most people will not follow these lessons.
Many readers will probably think I’m jaded and condescending. Perhaps, I have become that grumpy middle-aged man I always used to make fun of in my younger days. My intent is not to discourage anyone. In fact, that’s why I added the part about me being a trouble maker amounting to not much at the beginning of the journey. And the part about continuing my irresponsible ways after arriving in Silicon Valley.
Anyone can make this journey. But like racing, there can only be a few winners in life, most will lose. It’s up to you to move up through the ranks. No one will let you pass; You will have to earn it every step of the way.
In fact, many have had far more successful journeys in life than I have had. Out of all of my friends from Silicon Valley, I am probably one of the least successful. Dan Brumleve, a good friend, who taught me most of what I know about programming works for Apple now. Some of my friends went on to found Palantir, Youtube, and Yelp. My brother-in-law, John Hayes, founded Pure Storage and is now working on Ghost.
One thing they all have in common is that they worked harder, smarter, longer, and faster than the thousands or millions of other people who were competing against them. If it’s one thing you take away from this article, please take away that there is no substitute for hard work.
I also want to be clear that these lessons are not only learned from motorsports. I’m sure that many learn these lessons from parents, education, religion, and other sports. It’s just that I learned these lessons rather late in my life. I am still learning today. Never stop learning. Never stop improving. Make it happen.
There is no substitute for hard workTHOMAS EDISON