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What a joyous celebration by Serena Williams upon winning the Olympic gold medal in women’s singles tennis in London.  There she was, at a loss for words, standing center court at the All England Club. Less than a month earlier, Serena had earned $1.4 million dollars and her 5th Wimbledon championship on this very same court. Yet on this day, this supreme competitor had not earned as much as a farthing (hey it’s London), but she celebrated with the same – if not more – exuberance than 15 year-old Katie Ledecky upon winning the 800 meter women’s freestyle swim race.

What is it that makes Serena the ultimate competitor? What can entrepreneurs learn from her sustained success – when she has fought back from injuries and ignored the whispers of her being washed-up? There’s a lesson we can learn in the excitement and joy Serena shared with us a few days ago in London, and there’s a lesson we can learn from the ultimate competitor who fights just as hard and appreciates the win even more than when there’s a million dollars on the line.

There’s a correlation between motivation and success. What can we infer regarding the motivational forces that make Miss Williams the ultimate champion?

  1. Don’t Show Me The Money 

    According to modern motivational research, money is not the most effective motivational force. In fact, those that say, “I’m going to build some crap that will make me friggin’ rich,” are likely to build crap that will put their finances in the toilet.Sure, you might say that Serena doesn’t need money so that she can compete for honor instead of cash.  But many people born with a silver spoon in their mouths don’t sign up for a grueling practice regimen. One famous rich guy just sent his wife’s dancing horse to the Olympics, investing his cash in place of sweat.

    Great entrepreneurs don’t retire when they strike it rich; they continue to make an impact.  Think of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett as examples of consummate entrepreneurs who keep driving their businesses forward. For them, it’s not about the money.

  2. Higher Purpose 

    Serena didn’t just win an Olympic medal for herself; she won it for her country. People work harder when what they work for is more significant than themselves. It’s not a get-rich thing. It’s a do-something-with-meaning thing. It’s a make-an-impact thing.  It’s why many relay competitors put up their best performances – they are competing for the team.

  3. Chip on Your Shoulder 

    Williams has won the grand slam of tennis and is a successful businesswoman, yet she has never won an individual Olympic gold medal. She’s come back from injuries and slumps. She’s the younger sister of an exceptional tennis player and celebrity. Like many successful entrepreneurs, she has a chip on her shoulder and always has something to prove.

  4. Make A Mark 

    Williams joins Steffi Graf as one of only two women to have ever won the “Golden Grand Slam Singles Tennis Championship,” winning all four major tennis championships (US Open, French Open, Australian Open, and Wimbledon) and the Olympics. Williams is the only American to achieve the Golden Grand Slam and the only person in history to win the singles and doubles championships in all five events.  She’s left her mark like Michael Phelps, who earned 18 gold medals and 22 total medals during his Olympic career. These athletes made history and earned their place, as have entrepreneurs like Thomas Edison, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs.

  5. Competitor 

    Williams is wealthy and famous, yet she gets up every morning to work out, hit thousands of tennis balls, drives herself to exhaustion in pursuit of perfection, and watch her diet.  Why? Because She’s not going to get beat.  She’s like that entrepreneur whose peers tell her that she will never get her product to market.  She’s like that startup CEO who keeps knocking on investor doors and ignoring hundreds of no’s in the pursuit of one yes.  She’s playing for the win. She’s not going to get beat.

Williams is an athlete, an entrepreneur, and a success.  She shares qualities with many of her entrepreneurial brethren who aren’t quite as famous and are pursuing their startup dreams.  We can learn much from an accomplished professional who still feels the joy of winning – those who play hard, even when there isn’t farthing on the line.