Chuck Yeager, World War II ace and the first person to break the sound barrier, passed away on Monday.
Years before, Yeager sent me on the wrong path. Although it was probably my fault.
I read Yeager's autobiography and somehow came away with the impression that a good pilot becomes a great pilot by taking great risks. Superior skills are acquired by constantly pushing the envelope, intentionally crossing the line between control and potential disaster and reeling it back in....
So I assumed becoming not just a good but a great motorcycle racer required taking great risks. Hey, I figured, just ride WFO (wide-expletive-open), hang it out over the edge, pull it back in enough times, and I would either become a great rider or...
(I tried not to think about the "or.")
Eventually -- far longer than it should have taken -- I was forced to think about the "or" and realize guts had nothing to do with being really quick.
Maybe it took riding for an hour with (as I later discovered) two broken wrists. Or maybe it took touching an unpadded knee to the pavement at 120 mph and seeing proof a kneecap is a bone.
Or maybe it took thinking of crashing not as an if but as a series of whens.
In time, I realized successful people -- in any pursuit -- are successful because they approach learning in a consistent, systematic, results-focused way.
Bravery isn't a requirement for success. Innate talent isn't a requirement for success. Talented, highly skilled people don't take big risks -- yet they still learn to accomplish big things. They prepare. They train.
They constantly experiment and adapt and refine, refine, refine. Successful people gain superior skills not by breaking through the envelope but by approaching and then slowly and incrementally expanding the boundaries of that envelope.
That was what I should have learned from Yeager.
Yeager started off as an aircraft mechanic and later signed up for a program that allowed enlisted soldiers to become pilots. He was shot down during his eighth mission in World War II. He escaped capture, made his way across enemy lines... and flew 56 more missions and shot down 13 enemy planes, five in one day.
After the war Yeager turned a high school degree and a relentless quest for improvement into a level of skill that earned him selection for top test assignments. As one officer said, (Yeager was) the best 'instinctive' pilot he had ever seen... and demonstrated an extraordinary capacity to remain calm and focused in stressful situations.
When Yeager broke the sound barrier -- in aviation terms, an achievement akin to the first time the 4-minute mile was broken -- the Air Force kept his achievement secret for a year. Yeager didn't care; he just kept testing faster planes and setting new speed and altitude records.
Like in in 1953, when he flew an X-1A to a then-record 1,600-plus mph. Asked about the experience, Yeager said he got up at dawn, went hunting, shot a goose, went up and set the record, and had the goose that night for dinner.
To Yeager, the exceptional was all in a day's work because he possessed an extraordinary commitment to one thing: Just do the work.
As Mark Cuban says, that's where success comes from. According to Cuban: "It's not about money or connections. It's the willingness to outwork and outlearn everyone."
Yep. No hacks. No shortcuts. Cuban -- a guy with the results to show for it -- clearly feels that success is based primarily on working hard.
And on letting the work --and the fulfillment that comes from a job well done -- be the reward.
So did Yeager.
Yeager never claimed to be smarter than anyone. He never claimed to be more educated, more politically savvy, or more connected. In an era where mostly officers went to flight school, and mostly engineering grads flew test planes, Yeager stood out not just for his skills but for his (lack of) background.
All he had was a willingness to work harder than everyone else; to let hard work be his competitive advantage.
And you can, too.
Whether at work, or in your personal life, or wherever your definition of success leads you... when you do the work, you may not accomplish everything you hope for... but you will definitely accomplish a lot more.
Because keeping your head down and doing the work -- and letting the work be the primary reward -- is the one thing you can always control.
That's what it took me too long to learn from Yeager.
But I'll always be glad I figured it out.