When I entered the military, I had a single goal in mind.
I’d like to say I joined up out of love for my country, an irresistible desire to serve, a drive to help right wrongs and bring peace to troubled times, and a sense of obligation to give back to our free society for all the incredible things it had put in my life. Except none of that would be true.
To be clear, all those things did develop over time. I have a hell of a lot more appreciation today for this noble, generous-minded, and at times bizarre experiment called the United States than I did when I was a 19-year-old kid. Righting wrongs, serving the greater good, a sense of gratitude for the freedoms and opportunities so many of us take for granted? I’m in. But back then? No. Back then there was one and only one gravitational pull that sucked me into Naval Special Warfare: a thirst to be the best.
I’d heard the SEALs were the best. So I joined the Navy — but I honestly had no interest in being in the Navy per se. I wanted to be a SEAL.
I believe that you, reading these words right now, have the same bone-level attraction to excellence that I and most of my Spec Ops buddies do. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t have read this far. But — and it is a very big but — I also believe that is not a universal trait.
The desires for food and water, shelter, safety, sex, companionship, recognition… I recognize all these as universal. I don’t think there is a person alive who doesn’t want, in some fundamental way, to be happy and to feel that being here on the planet makes a positive difference. We are all, even the saddest and most twisted individuals among us, heroes of our own stories.
But the thirst for excellence? I don’t think that one is universal. Frankly, I believe a lot of people just don’t care. Pretty good is good enough, and average will do. I say that not as an indictment but purely as an observation. If there were no average, if there were no frankly piss-poor, then there would be nothing against which to measure excellence. It’s just the way the world is built. Like the spectrum of visible light, there is a spectrum of achievement with plenty of people vibrating away, content as pigs in slop, at the lower frequencies.
But that’s not where entrepreneurial success lies. Entrepreneurial success comes into existence at the purple and ultraviolet edges of the spectrum.
Like my friend Nick English.
Nick has been fascinated with intricate machinery all his life. From an early age, he and his big brother, Giles, learned all about the construction of devices, from clock assemblies to yachts to airplanes, from their father, Euan, a Ph.D. engineer and ex-RAF pilot. One day, when Nick was 24, he and his father were flying a World War II–vintage Harvard in a practice run for an airshow when their plane got hung up in an inverted spin and had to crashland. Nick broke 30 bones; his father was killed.
Upon recovering, Nick realized life was too short not to spend it doing what he loved. In partnership with Giles, he started Bremont Watch Company, built around their shared love of aviation and their dad’s dedication to excellence. A few years later, Martin-Baker, perhaps the world’s leading manufacturer of ejection seats and related aviation safety equipment, approached Bremont with the idea of co-branding a watch that could withstand the most brutal of conditions. Nick and Giles developed the watch; Martin-Baker put it through its paces. They strapped it to ejection seat dummies blown up and out over and over — and it still functioned flawlessly. Since then, working with squadron after squadron, they’ve created custom-built watches for air forces all over the world. In the 15 years since Bremont’s founding, they have become the face of military aviation timepieces.
I know exactly what Nick was seeing when he stared into the hearts of complex machines as a kid — and I know exactly what happened to him. He was seduced into a lifelong love affair with excellence. That’s a passion I share, and I suspect you do, too.
Excellence lies at the heart of greatness.
Really, how great could a shoe company be? How excited could you get, could anyone get, about selling shoes? How much more boring could something be than the thermostat that controls the heat in your house? What sorts of business prospects would you see in a cup of coffee, the ultimate symbol of next to worthlessness, as in, “That and a quarter will buy you a cup of coffee?”
Answer: Zappos, Nest, Starbucks.
What do those three business home runs have in common? A thirst for excellence.