He had 30 minutes to make the round trip. Take off from the Parc de Saint-Cloud to the Eiffel Tower and back. Three and a half miles. Thirty minutes. Simple. Right?
The way to the tower was easy. The wind was in his favor. Nine minutes of smooth gliding and the prize would be his. But there were some complications as he turned the aircraft around the Eiffel Tower. With the wind whipping against the aircraft and the clock ticking, the engine went out.
Hundreds of feet above the ground and with no harness, he needed to act quickly. Suddenly, not only was his prize at risk but so was his life. Alberto promptly climbed through the metal pipes and wires to get to the engine and turn it back on. He reached the finish line with 30 seconds to spare. The crowd cheered, and he won $20,000, an achievement of a lifetime.
The year was 1901, and Alberto Santos-Dumont had just completed the first instance of powered flight, a full two years before the Wright brothers’ powered flights near Kitty Hawk.
Born in Brazil in 1873 and sent to study in Paris at the age of 18, Santos-Dumont dreamed we would live in a world where flying would be as familiar as walking or riding a bike. But chances are you have probably never heard of him. And it’s okay. Neither did I until a few years ago. A bit of a celebrity among socialites, at the turn of the century more people knew about Santos-Dumont than the Wright Brothers.
So the question is why do we remember the Wright Brothers but not Santos-Dumont? Or all the other people who designed, tested and built flying devices before these men. The reality is history does not always remember those that were first. But at times it feels like we have lost sight of that.
Today we overvalue being first. First to market. First to raise money. First to have a higher valuation. First to garner attention. Being first feels good. It gives you an undeniable sense of accomplishment, fleeting recognition and euphoric bursts of dopamine. However, after that’s all done, there is still a tremendous amount of work to do. The obsession with being first takes away from what truly matters, perfecting your craft, which is a neverending process.
When the Wright Brothers successfully demonstrated powered heavier-than-air flight, they did not just stop there. They chased their larger mission by attempting to scale the idea. They patented their design. And even though they could not build a lasting company, they proved aviation could be a viable industry. They paved the way for today’s aviation giants — Boeing, Embraer, Airbus, and others. And these giants created a pathway for commercial airlines and further innovation that impacts us all on a daily basis.
If you are looking to have a significant impact on the world, it’s not enough to be first. You have to be best. And it must be noted that being best is always yet to come. Being best requires the willingness to evolve and continually improve. Being best involves test and iteration. It requires time, patience, and desire to work through tough challenges so that your design and idea can have the maximum scale and impact.
Some of today’s entrepreneurs and companies, particularly in AI, VR, and Crypto space, are falling into the trap of being satisfied with being first. And why even try? They garner plenty of attention in the form of articles, capital, and public validation for relatively unproven and untested ideas. Why do the labor when you can have all the fruits of the labor upfront?
Boeing was founded a full decade and a half after the feats of Santos-Dumont and the Wright Brothers. And the commercial airlines of the modern era we all benefit from came into existence decades after these initial feats. There is a tremendous amount of new technology that is in existence today and more coming down the pike. But the real impact will not be felt till we spend the time and effort to perfect it to achieve massive scale.
Yes, we have seen some self-driving car make a few trips around perfectly curated streets full of defensive drivers, this does not mean we are all going to be in Level 5 Automation Pods by 2020. Yes, we can set alarms and reminders with our voice, but it does not mean we are suddenly going to be able to do everything through our voice-enabled apps. And just because the asset prices of a few cryptocurrencies went parabolic does not mean we are going to have a payments revolution overnight. We are still a ways away from these technologies impacting a plurality of the population, not just the fortunate few.
Being first may earn you some bragging rights but the pursuit of being best is what moves the world forward.