Great is not perfect

Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them. William Shakespeare in Twelfth Night, 1602.

Perfect is the enemy of good. Voltaire in La Bégueule, 1772. 

Good is the enemy of great. Jim Collins in Good to Great, 2001.

If something is worth doing at all, sometimes it’s worth doing it half-assed. Ray Bennett in The Underachiever’s Manifesto, 2006

How do I achieve greatness? Mr Bennett asks whether the consequence of pursuing greatness is in fact worth the effort? I have a collection of philosophy, psychology and economics books that are unanamous in the  notion that to achieve great things you are required to persistently work hard, and in many cases have some luck! How much work? How can you be sure that your hard work is correctly directed? Gary Player used to say that the harder he worked, the luckier he got. So is hard work the answer?
The Pareto principle, named after the Italian economist, explains that it usually takes 20% of the total time to complete 80% of a task while to complete the last 20% of a task takes 80% of the effort.  To achieve perfection may not be possible and so, as increasing effort results in diminishing returns, further activity becomes increasingly inefficient.
In his book Bennett says that we are bombarded with messages telling us to be the best that we can be. He points out for example that a stellar career is often coupled with a disastrous marriage and that many talented, hard-working people do not look after their physical wellbeing and suffer strokes, heart attacks or are overweight. He points out that runners suffer injury because rather than enjoy the occasional 10km run they attempt to run marathons, keeping up with peers in the running club or being brow beaten into taking on a bigger challenge. The theme of his book is that everything can be enjoyed, in moderation.
Jim Collins, when asked what his research suggested about the best way to respond to the  global economic slowdown, said that if he were running a company today his single priority would be to acquire as many of the best people as he could. He said this on the basis that he thought the economy would improve and so anticipated that the single biggest constraint to the success of his organisation would be the ability to attract and retain enough of the right people.
In order to meet Mr. Collins definition of one of these “right” people, keeping the Pareto principle in mind, we must find the balance  between being effective, efficient and healthy without becoming obsessive or blunted by the illusionary ideal of perfection. It is therefore permissible to fail. The data that we accumulate from this failure must be assimilated into a lesson that we can use to improve our future performance. We must be bold and constantly test our theories in spite of the possibility that they will fail in order to make progress.
And there you have it. I wrote a whole paragraph that could be used in one of the business books that I have read. There are logical inferences, authoritative sources and the motivational message that it is ok not to succeed as long as you learn from your mistakes and you don’t give up.  And when you have finished reading it the words are so generic and overused that you have forgotten the paragraph before you turn the page. True? Perhaps the  inspiration to greatness is not exclusively an intellectual pursuit?
In 1976 Niki Lauda and James Hunt fought for the Formula One World Championship Title. Lauda, in his Ferrari, was  ahead in the championship but Hunt, in the McLaren, was on his heels.  At the German Grand Prix Lauda lost control of his Ferrari and after hitting an embankment the car burst into flames and rolled back onto the track where he was trapped in the flaming wreckage. Lauda was wearing a modified helmet, the foam had compressed and it slid off his head after the accident, leaving his face exposed to the fire. As a result he suffered severe burns to his head and inhaled superheated toxic gases that damaged his lungs and blood.

42 days after this ordeal he got back into his Ferrari for the Italian GP at Monza. He raced because it was his job. He raced because his team had hired a driver to replace him before he had even reached the hospital. He raced because when nobody would hire him he had taken out a 30,000 pound loan and bought his way into a team by backing his own ability to win. He raced because while lying in hospital, having skin grafts and limiting his reconstructive surgery to the functioning of his eyelids, he saw his rival win in his absence. He got back into that car and he raced.

Ron Howard has made an epic movie called “Rush” that tells this story, much better than I am able to write it. I quote some of the dialog below :

You know, in hospital, the toughest part of my treatment was the vacuum. Pumping the shit out of my lungs. It was hell. And while doing it, I was watching television. You winning all my points. ‘That bastard Hunt,’ I would say. ‘I hate that guy.’ And then one day, the doctor came and said, ‘Mr. Lauda, may I offer a piece of advice? Stop thinking of it as a curse to have been given an enemy in life. It can be a blessing, too. A wise man gets more from his enemies than a fool from his friends.’ And you know what? He was right. Look at us. …. we’re both champions of the world. It was not bad, huh?

Greatness is preparation, intelligence, percistence and some luck. It is also passion, self-belief and often, bloody mindedness. There is no formula or secret recipe. The oldest of the quotes is from 1602 and perhaps it is the most true. We can do great things by taking the responsibility of fulfilling a path that has been destined for us. We can do great things by pursuing our dreams in the face of adversity. We can do great things. We can all do great things.

Published by Warwick


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