Vail Daily columnist Jack Van Ens: Is business success a sprint or a relay? |

Vail Daily columnist Jack Van Ens: Is business success a sprint or a relay?

Is business success built mainly on personal savvy, taking risks, and seizing opportunities? Does achievement run like an Olympic sprinter who beats competitors?

Or is business success dependent on doing one’s best with personal abilities, but admitting that “If it’s meant to be, it’s up to me” is a faulty slogan. A family loan, good education, counsel from a relative help achieve marketplace success.

Don’t we also win the Gold in business running like a relay runner? Each is dependent on team members to pass the baton and sprint toward the finish line.

At the London Olympics, each starting block has a speaker installed in it. No longer will the runner in the lane closest to the starter have a millisecond advantage of hearing the gun go off. Now each runner gets help from speakers in starting blocks.

Isn’t this upgrade for sprinters symbolic of what happens when businesses succeed? Success hinges on both personal striving and communal support.

Comedian Jon Stewart asks, “Why are some suspicious of businesses which get government help and apply for tax incentives, labeling this ‘grade school Marxism’? Our elementary school teachers taught us to share. Isn’t this the key to success?”

At the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Mitt Romney gave a pep talk to athletes, reminding them to be grateful and humble. They don’t earn gold medals strictly by their own skill, Romney stressed. Winners don’t have exclusive claim on records they establish. Each receives lots of help along the way.

Success is a combination of running like a sprinter and participating in a relay race.

“You Olympians, however, know you didn’t get here solely on your own,” declared Romney prior to the opening ceremonies of the Salt Lake City Olympics. “For most of you, loving parents, sisters or brothers, encouraged your hopes, coaches guided, communities built venues in order to organize competitions. All Olympians stand on the shoulders of those who lifted them. We’ve already cheered the Olympians. Let’s also cheer the parents, coaches and communities.”

If the relay race teaches us how to achieve in sports, why don’t the same dynamics apply to business, as President Obama has said?

During the heated presidential campaign recently, Romney acted as if he never uttered his 2002 Olympics speech. He pounced on President Obama for taking the “sprint and relay” recipe for success and applying it to small businesses.

The president told a Virginia audience that education in public schools helps us make wise business decisions later in life. Good roads and bridges make possible on-time delivery of products that successful companies use. Government research grants to top students allow them to work in business incubators, developing new products. Individuals build businesses with help from others.

Both Romney’s 2002 Olympic Games pep talk and President Obama’s speech to small-business owners make the same point. Success is based on excellently running both the sprint and the relay race.

The president wasn’t stealing credit for innovation and profit from hard-working people who earned it. But they didn’t earn it all by themselves, either.

That’s what the poet John Donne revealed in his immortal insight: “No man is an island.” We are inexplicably interconnected. The solitary self-made person doesn’t really exist.

Who’s autonomous? Aren’t successful people products of social forces, families and friends who have shaped them for the good?

That’s the gist of a major biblical theme. In the Elizabethan English of the King James Version of the Bible, we read in the Christmas story that the Virgin Mary was “great with child” (Luke 2: 5). This antique phrase for being pregnant points toward the interrelated nature of humanity. The mother is not separate from the fetus, nor is the fetus divorced from her in the womb. Like relay racers who depend on each other, mother and fetus are knit, joined in body, mind and spirit.

Princetonian Michael Lewis believes that luck plays a part in success, too. With a degree in art history, Lewis aimed to be a successful author, though nothing he wrote in college had been published. He chanced upon sitting at a dinner next to a Salomon Brothers executive’s wife. That got him a job at the investment firm and the subject for his enormously popular first book, “Liar’s Poke.” At 28 years, Lewis is a popular author.

Speaking to Princeton grads this spring, Lewis cautioned them not to take all credit for future success. Sometimes we are in a relay race at a random dinner where luck plays a part. The right contact, out of the blue, opens doors for us.

Declared Lewis, “With luck comes obligation. You owe a debt, and not just to your gods. You owe a debt to the unlucky.”

Tune in to the Olympics. Key on background stories of sprinters blessed with blazing speed. They speak of a coach, a fan, a counselor who helped them succeed. These are keys for winning, being there.

Realize success comes to sprinters who run in life’s relay race. Both are required.

The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (, which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.

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