B****, I will break your f****** arm!” is perhaps not the best statement with which to begin an inspirational essay. However, it is a good summary of my attitude when I competed in judo.
Unlike timed events, where a clock determines who wins, judo is a ‘judged sport’; a referee decides on the score. My opponent looked like she ought to be on a Wheaties box. I looked like I ought to be on a wanted poster. If it came down to a decision, who do you think would win?”
A great judo player, Pat Burris, gave me sage advice: “Go for the armbar. Even if the referee doesn’t score it, if you break her arm, for the rest of the match, you’re fighting a one-armed woman. If you can’t beat a one-armed woman, babe, you deserve to lose.”
I refused to accept that my success was in anyone’s hands but my own. Like many of my competitors’ arms, I took that rule and broke it.
I always wondered if maybe there was a week during my school years when they got all of the girls in the room and gave them The Rules. If there was a week like that, I must have been out sick and missed it because all of my life nearly everyone around me has acted as if there was this set of rules:
- Your physical appearance will never match up to what it should be.
- It makes a difference what clothes you wear.
- Girls aren’t good at math.
- No man wants a woman who comes home from practice soaking wet with sweat.
- Women can’t be as successful as men in business, because they have children to raise.
- Don’t say anything that might upset people.
I have heard these lines all of my life. Even though I’m probably the oldest author in this book, I still don’t understand these attitudes any better than when I was a child. Throughout my life, I repeatedly have been asked:
“Why can’t you be like everybody else?”
“Why can’t you just accept that there are some things you CAN’T do?”
“Why do you always act like the rules don’t apply to you?”
“Just who do you think you are?”
Fifty years ago, I couldn’t accept that schools had boys’ sports but not girls’ sports. Thirty years ago, I couldn’t accept that women couldn’t be engineers. Today, I can’t accept that grandmothers can’t be CEO of a successful technology start-up, especially not in gaming.
Who do I think I am? I’ve been a world judo champion, engineer, professor, statistical consultant, CEO and author. All of my life, I’ve answered outraged questioners the same way, “I’m me.”
Twenty years ago, a student at the college where I was teaching wrote me a heart-felt note saying that he was going to graduate in a few weeks and he felt he really did not fit into his small North Dakota town. He asked if I had any advice to offer that might help him find a direction in life. The answer I gave him then is the one I would give today.
All of my life, I have tried to live by my own rules.
I cannot guarantee that this will make you happy, but it has worked for me, and if you are asking me this question, it will probably work for you.
The second rule that I refused to accept was that women must be continually evaluating their looks – in parts, no less. It takes me 15 minutes to get ready to go anywhere. The only time I look at myself in the mirror is when I’m brushing my hair and teeth in the morning. If I give any thought to my appearance, it is this, “I look fine.” Then, I go about my day. I have never for one second thought that my nose was too big, my breasts too small or thought of myself in any way other than a whole person.
I am sure I developed a healthy body image from participating in sports most of my life. I started judo at age 12 because it was one of the few sports in the small town where I lived that girls were allowed to join. (Yes, in those days before Title IX legislation required programs accepting federal funds to provide equal opportunities for males and females, many organizations had rules against women joining the team.) When, thanks to Title IX again, my college started a track team for women, I joined that.
It wasn’t just the sports in which I participated but the type of sport. Unlike predominantly female sports, such as gymnastics and ice-skating, looks play no part in winning when it came to judo or track. No one cares about your outfit, your sparkly make-up or how your hair is styled. It’s 100 percent what you can do.
The third rule I decided didn’t apply to me was that there is one path to success. As a competitor, I didn’t have the funding that my competitors did to travel around the world. However, when I was an undergraduate, I applied for the year-abroad program at my university. Since my scholarship money could be used toward that, I was able to live and train in Japan at Waseda University my junior year and still graduate from college when I was 19.
The fourth rule I have flaunted all of my life, and the one that outrages people the most, is that women aren’t allowed the same choices as men. After starting a male sport at 12, I went to college and took lots of classes that were predominantly male – Calculus, computer programming, and mathematical statistics. As a statistician, I can’t help but see a relationship here. Many women I know who grew up in judo went on to have careers in traditionally male-dominated fields. I think perhaps these women became comfortable being the only female in a room. When they saw opportunities in fields like engineering, they were not held back the fact that all the others pursuing those opportunities were men.
Act 2: I want to replace math class with a game. So here, I am now, founder and CEO of 7 Generation Games. No one can be farther from the Silicon Valley stereotype of a high-tech startup founder than me. I didn’t go to Stanford or an Ivy League school and dropout. I attended Washington University in St. Louis, an excellent college in the Midwest. I graduated, then went on to get two masters degrees and a Ph.D. I’m not twenty-something. I’m fifty-something. I’m not single. I have a husband, four daughters and two granddaughters.
I’ve wanted to create a game to teach kids math ever since I got my first Macintosh computer back in 1984. As you have deduced by now, my success in life hasn’t been due to my sweet personality and willingness to abide by the rules. If I had not been good at math, I am quite sure I’d be in Chino Women’s Prison right now. Because I was good at two things, first judo and then math, I received a pass on a lot of my worse qualities. People took me under their wing and mentored me.
How did I get good at math? The same way I got good at judo. I did a lot of it. If there was a game that included math, I reasoned, and kids liked it enough to play it a lot, they would get better, too. So, I decided to make a game like that and developed one that would appeal to both students who liked math and to students who hated school but just liked computer games.
At angel investor meetings, it was pretty clear the type of founder that was being sought. Some were honest enough to state bluntly that “younger people are digital natives, they understand the market” or “young people don’t have children to go home to, so they can put in the hours necessary for a startup.”
Confronted with this, I did what I’ve always done. I skipped the standard path. We received $550,000 in grant funds, $21,000 in Kickstarter funds and we already have thousands of users, as our game is in twenty schools this fall who have agreed to be test sites. Kids who play our game are scoring better on standardized tests than kids who just read their textbooks and do worksheets – and they’re having a good time.
What have I learned in the end? That you don’t have to accept the rules other people write for you. Whatever it is that you want to achieve, work until you get it. Don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t. Never give up. Never let anyone stop you, even if it means you have to break an arm or two along the way.