The 2007 documentary feature film “Running the Sahara” gives a fascinating close-up view of an almost unimaginable expedition. Three runners–one from Taiwan, one Canadian and one American–jogged 7,500 kilometers across the Sahara without stopping, for 111 days.
In addition to their sometimes crippling physical effort, the three men allowed themselves and their very dedicated support team to be filmed as they struggled against heat, cold, and indecisive governments to reach their goal of touching the Red Sea.
The film’s almost microscopic record of their very human strengths and weaknesses provides many lessons for entrepreneurs, which I plan to write about some day soon. It also points out some of the pitfalls and barriers shared by too many American startups.
Based on the documentary, all three men overcame huge psychological and physical odds. Their initial shared passion to succeed gradually morphed into expressions of more personal passions, priorities and perspectives, as days turned into grueling weeks and months.
The Taiwanese runner was sustained by his years of training, as well as unselfish support from his girlfriend and a dozen friends who’d flown from Taipei to be with him in the journey’s last leg. The Canadian strengthened his resolve to help create and maintain programs bringing water to African deserts, and environmental consciousness to students around the world. Meanwhile, the American finished the race wondering how far ahead of his teammates he could get.
Of course it’s wrong to stereotype or judge, based on one record of one trio’s very unusual experience. And maybe years spent teaching international business culture leads me to jump to conclusions. But I don’t think the American runner’s consistent personalization of this enormous team project, supported by dozens of dedicated people, is atypical. It’s just one more hurdle many American entrepreneurs must overcome–the self-aggrandizing tendency to overlook others’ potential and efforts so we can magnify our personal achievements and generate greater profits.
This national characteristic, noted as long ago as in 1831 by Alexis de Tocqueville, obviously served us well for centuries, and helped turn the US into a preeminent world power. But it also contributed to our proud nation’s crippling economic meltdown.
Moving into a new decentralized age, in which teamwork and “paying it forward” are becoming the hallmarks of success, each of us should acknowledge and resist a tendency to make short-sighted and self-centered business decisions. This tendency hobbled the American runner’s dream of glory, and can do the same to our growth potential.
In other words, always think of success as a group effort, rather just asking others to do it.