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The art and science of making the impossible come to life

One of the biggest misconceptions about self-driving cars is that we’re going to wake up one day, and they’re going to be everywhere. No matter how well it works in a lab, it can never scale unless someone builds a successful business around it. From shipping to elevators, railroads, electricity, aviation and computers, someone had to take a leap of faith, after which all that followed seemed inevitable.

But nothing is inevitable. The history of science, business, and war is filled with both success and failure. Hollywood focuses on the winners, but the best lessons are learned from those who failed, especially those who persisted and eventually overcame seemingly impossible odds.

I learned that lesson from Roger Bannister, the first man to run a four-minute mile, after which hundreds did it. Bannister inspired me not only to try to break the infamous Cannonball Run driving record, but to persist even after many technical and mechanical roadblocks. Now I see everyone and everything not just through the lens of what’s possible, but of who might take us there.

Tens of billions of dollars have been invested in autonomous technology development, but it’s still unclear who will be the Thomas Edison or George Westinghouse of our time. Which companies will make it? What are the characteristics common to successful leaders of the past, and what can we learn from them?

On this episode of No Parking, Bryan & I sat down with Neal Bascomb, author of one of my favorite books, the Roger Bannister biography The Perfect Mile. He also wrote Faster, Hunting Eichmann, The New Cool, Higher, The Winter Fortress, The Escape Artists and Red Mutiny. Bascomb’s protagonists design robots, race cars, fly fighters, escape POW camps, bomb Nazi power plants, and build the world’s tallest skyscrapers, but his stories are united not by what they do, but by how they think.

Persistence is everything, says Bascomb, who is fascinated “not only by what drives people to do something, but how they achieve it.”

“I think Roger Bannister is such a test case. I mean, just from pure will and aggression I mean, he had that. The desire to win was definitely there. The science part of it, the breaking down of the training regimes was instrumental. Then also bringing this love of what it is to run. I think ultimately [Bannister] was able to do what many people thought was impossible, because he learned the lessons from not only his competitors, but embraced his passion for running again.”

Bascomb’s “heroes” are brilliant, passionate, and courageous, but also mercurial. That’s what it takes to get people to do things they couldn’t do on their own, let alone try, unless united by a common purpose by a strong leader.

“Most of these leaders are not necessarily the most charismatic individuals. Being someone that everyone is just bowled away by personally, it doesn’t really happen. It’s more their intensity of purpose… the level of aggressiveness, the level of ‘I’ll do anything to make this happen. I’m committed. Everyone around me knows that I’m committed.’ That in itself is inspiring to a group of people. I mean, knowing that someone will go through any wall to achieve the mission is everything. It’s a mix of passion and intensity… the clarity of purpose. Not just the ‘we want to do this, but this is exactly what we’re going to do.’ People know that from the very beginning.”
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A cable worker balances untethered during construction of the Empire State Building. Neil Bascomb’s Higher chronicles the bitter race between two of Manhattan’s architects to build the tallest building in the world. Walter Chrysler, building the rival Chrysler Building at the same time, was reportedly more diligent about the safety of his workers having learned his trade on the automobile assembly line.
(Lewis Hine / Wikipedia)

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