Race to excellence, stumble into mediocrity


The day started at 3:00 a.m. I got up in the dark, brushed my teeth, washed up, shaved, put on my suit, made sure I had my passport and headed out the door. An hour and a half later I was in the Saint John Airport, and an hour after that I was in the air. I wouldn’t be back home until 2:00 a.m. the next morning.

By the time I arrived in Toronto at 6:00 a.m. the air was already muggy. I checked into to the men’s room before heading outside and as I walked out I bumped into one of my old business partners. It was a bit of a shock and a pleasant surprise. We hadn’t seen each other in more than 15 years.

We instinctively laughed, shook hands and started filling in the lost years. By his own account he’d been successful, first running ad agencies, then a TV production company and now an investment company. He’d even found time to write and publish a self-help book. In fact he had a copy of it in his bag and, as we parted, he gave it to me.

I caught a limo and headed downtown and started reading the book. After quickly leafing through, I found a one-page reference to our business. It was an interesting time and obviously he’d thought a lot about it over the years, as had I.

But that was then and this is now. We’d both moved on. According to his book he was successful. He has a happy family living in a 5000-square-foot house on a hilltop with three sports cars in his garage. He’d even been to the Playboy mansion. Good for him, I thought.

Unfortunately, despite my best intentions, the rest of the day wasn’t quite as positive. I met with a financial adviser, a retired politician and an innkeeper and his wife. One comment in reference to politics sort of characterized the whole day, “the art of the possible.”

I have to say I’m not a big fan of the art of the possible. Having started out in creative arts, achieving the impossible is the real goal. I think it’s the same for scientists and inventors, too. Anyone who’s into creating something new has to deal with the “art of the impossible.”

And that contradiction between impossibility of excellence and the expediency of the possible caught my attention.

As I travelled through Toronto, the idea of excellence was everywhere. BCE Place downtown is a good example, with its soaring, lacy-steel vaulted ceiling and sunlight pouring in on the tiny pedestrians below. It’s an engineering marvel. But no more so than the other steel and glass skyscrapers outside, or the CN tower on the waterfront.

There’s a purity to excellence. It has to do with human beings doing the seemingly impossible. The old cathedrals of Europe have the same pure resonance. So, I thought, building the impossible must have something do with honouring one’s gods. And during the Middle Ages in Europe the god was—well—God. In downtown Toronto today’s god is simply corporate cash. That, of course, is obvious. And that was why I was there, after all.

So why did every one of my business conversations there only deal with “the possible?” The art of the possible in business is to start at the bottom, create your product or service, demonstrate some proof of performance (success) on your own, attract an investor, build a brand, make a bit of money—and then someone may start to listen to you. May. Or may not.

A lot of future success depends on “brand.” As I’ve said before, brand is an idea that’s branded on your brain, much like a calf is branded on the butt with a hot poker. You can’t get too far in business without some kind of brand. For example, you might first want to have a brand education—say, Harvard, Oxford, MIT, Stanford, Yale.

Then you’d want to begin your career with a brand name organization—any Fortune 500 company would do. And then you’d want to associate yourself with brand name mentors, and since you can’t do this later in life, you’d better start young: old mentors don’t want old students. Finally, once you build all that brand, you’ll want to marry into a brand name family.

Human rights expert Amartya Sen married into the Rothschild family for example. Journalist and writer Tom Friedman (The World is Flat, and Hot, Flat and Crowded) married into the Bucksbaum billion-dollar real estate family, which recently went bust in the recent financial collapse. To prepare for the occasional unforeseen setback, it always helps to get a good start on things.

As a repentant marketing man, I know the power of brand, but I also greatly resent its constraints. Brand should never be confused with merit, yet sadly, it almost always is.

On the merit-driven side, purity and excellence of creation are modern characteristics, realized in steel and glass, plastics, transistors packed and stacked in silicon wafers, carefully engineered drugs and manipulated genes. Purity is the goal of theoretical science. And the more pure and distilled the theory, the more appealing it becomes to scientists.

Businesses thrive on this pure invention. It’s the raw fuel that feeds those prosaic, “art of the possible” organizations. Rarely do businesses—or governments for that matter—want purity to enter into the complex tangle of relationships that protect the status quo. So unless you have a great brand name association, you’ll likely never be a member of the club—let alone affect change.

And therein lies the conundrum. We live in a world full of wonderfully pure inventions distributed and sold by decidedly dull organizations—and managed by big banks. It’s all too predictably dismal.

I figure it would be a lot more fun to run down to the nearest riverbank, strip down to our bathing suits and have a damn good mud-fight. But I keep forgetting. We’re probably all too old for that.


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