5 Business Lessons From the Roller Rink

Bobbing and weaving amongst the tweens at the local roller rink got me thinking about my business somehow.  Maybe it was the lights shining down from the disco balls, or the smell of two day old popcorn, but something about it reminded me of things that I know to be true about my work and my business.

Before you get the idea that I'm creeping on the suburban youth-skate scene, I should begin by mentioning that I have two kids who love to skate and I'm not one to just sit around on the fancy carpeted mushroom benches and stare at my phone.  Since this is the second paragraph though, I guess I failed miserably at leading with that explanation, so feel free to judge.

With four orange wheels strapped to each foot and the wind breezing cooly through my eyelashes, I pondered how this little place is a perfect microcosm of the business world; only this world has all the swear words edited from the soundtrack. Here are a few things I know to be true.

1. Holding a hand or hugging the wall makes you feel safe. But never makes you better 

There are so many resources for entrepreneurs just starting out.  Blogs, podcasts, mastermind groups, workshops and life coaches.  A friend of mine even told me about this thing called "university", where people can spend a few years learning about what happened in business twenty years ago.  It sounded fascinating. 

As people in the age of easily accessed information, it's our job to know as much as possible before jumping into something.  Sometimes though, I've seen people use information as a crutch.  Things like, "If I just take another class." or  "When I find the right mentor to guide me."  These are things I've heard before.  Hey, let's be real, these are things I've probably said before.

The world moves fast though, and you can probably stand to be that kid hanging on the wall for a little while, but at some point it's not going to be fun watching everyone else whiz by you with smiles on their faces.  (because the DJ just cranked Gagnam Style up to 11... Boom!)

There's no pretty way to say it.  You have to be willing to bust your ass.  You won't go from from hugging the wall to backwards skating without some bruises along the way.  Same for your career.  Whether you own your business or work in someone else's, calculated risks are the quickest path to growth.  

2. Elegance and subtlety are the marks of experience 

Experience is one of those things that almost seems old fashioned, like something your grandparents did after the war.  I teach commercial photography students complex lighting techniques.  I lecture in the morning to explain the technique.  In the afternoon I demonstrate the technique and then have the students replicate it for themselves.  It's funny to see how frustrated they get when they can't nail it on the first try.  I reassure them that it only took me five years of practice to get it right every time and they'll be fine.   This reality horrifies them.

Looking around the rink, it's easy to spot the inexperienced skater.  Their arms flailing, an expression of sheer terror mixed with determination on their face.  Inexperience in the workplace is just as easy to spot.  It's the guy who selects "reply-all" to emails, gets whiny on social media, or won't close the damn deal!  You know that guy, we all hate that guy.  Knowledge and skill can get you from point A to B in a business setting, but those things plus experience will get you where you want to be in style.

3. A good soundtrack is important

One chilly Saturday in January, I took my kids out for a skate.  It soon became obvious that the music had been programmed by someone from my parent's generation.  For a roller rink, those were some pretty ancient tunes cranking out of the speakers.  The energy in the room was low and the skating just felt like exercise and I don't know anyone who enjoys exercise.  I asked the nice 15 year old at the snack bar if they could work in something "a little more current".  It made all the difference.  The whole place came alive again.

Imagine your career as an action adventure movie.  What's the soundtrack for the part you're in right now?  Is it the beginning of the movie when the tunes are upbeat and optimistic?  The middle where everything has gone to hell and there's no way our hero will emerge alive?  Or the end when the horns blast triumphantly as the credits begin to roll as the city buns in the background?  Whatever gives you the energy that's right for the moment, turn it up!

4. Be ready to shift course in a split second

The most dangerous people on the floor are the ones who just got the courage to get off the wall and are willing to fall down as much as necessary to win their battle with gravity.  They flail, they dart left and right and worst of all, they stop.  Why in the name of Peter, Paul and Mary you would stop on a skate rink knowing that people are moving on wheels right behind you, I just can't imagine.  People do it though; all the time.

Business can be that way too.  You're skating along just fine until your phone rings at 10 am with news of a new government regulation that just shut down half your business plan.  Those who are nimble have a huge advantage over larger and slower organizations.

5. There will be a guy skating the wrong way, and you're going to want to clothesline him... don't.

Let the referees take shame him when he's removed from the floor.  It won't take long.  It's the same with your competition.  Those back stabbing, conniving, weasley mofos who cause trouble for your industry and unfairly pick the pockets of unsuspecting clients are going to get theirs.  Maybe not today, but eventually, and there's no social media flame war that will make it happen any sooner.

Resist the temptation to point fingers or speak ill of people who you think are coloring outside the lines.  If they're breaking the law, that's different, but if they're simply being quasi-unethical, let them boil in their own oil.

So the next time you'e at the roller rink, remember, no chewing gum or hats.  They pose a hazard.  The next time you're at a board meeting remember, playing it safe won't get you on the cast of the next Roller Boogie movie.