From Chapter 12 “Indefatigable” in Ingredients of Outliers.
The Reasons Why
For many, going the distance or emptying the tank is simply for personal reasons, to overcome internal barriers, and to challenge themselves, or to get out of their comfort zones and test the limits of their ability, strength, endurance and courage. They want to discover how far they can go.
Gordon Ritter, a venture capitalist and entrepreneur, is another of those profiled in the SUCCESS magazine article mentioned above. In college, he’d been a member of the rowing team and later took up mountain climbing. Included in his exploits was reaching the summit of Aconcaqua. At 22,837 feet, and part of the Andes mountain range in Argentina, it’s the highest peak in South America.
A triathlete, he exercises vigorously and, according to the SUCCESS article, he “plans to tie a tractor tire to his waist and drag it around.” By way of explanation, he says, “I continue to find ways to get out of my comfort zone. If you go too long without pushing boundaries, you do get stale.”
Ralph Braun had a different reason for emptying the tank, and it began when he was merely six years old. Diagnosed with muscular dystrophy, his life expectancy didn’t extend beyond his teen years. By age fourteen he was in a wheelchair. A year later, with his father’s help, he built a motorized wagon to improve his mobility. By age 20, he’d built a motorized scooter from salvaged parts, which allowed him to get to and from his job at a nearby manufacturing plant.
Each time another obstacle was placed in his path, he responded. When the company where he worked moved farther away, he acquired a used Jeep which had been used to deliver mail and outfitted it with hand controls and a hydraulic tailgate lift. That allowed him to load and unload his scooter without help, and it eliminated any problems he might otherwise have had in getting to and from work.
Braun continued to invent ways to make travel easier for those with limited mobility. In 1970, he retrofitted a full-sized Dodge van with a motorized wheelchair lift, which he called the “Lift-A-Way.” Word spread quickly and as orders began coming in, he quit his job and launched The Braun Corporation.
That was 40 years ago. In his 70s today, the man who wasn’t expected to live past his teens oversees a company with more than 800 employees and is a world leader in the manufacture of wheelchair accessible vehicles and lifts. In 2012 President Barack Obama named him a “Champion of Change” for his contributions in bringing greater mobility to people all around the world.
Ralph Braun started it all as a way to help himself get around, but step-by-step and barrier-by-barrier, he kept emptying the tank and made the world a better place.
There may have never been better examples of what it means to “empty the tank” than to consider the events of one of the most infamous days in American history—September 11, 2001. It’s unlikely that anyone in this country who was perhaps aged six years or older on that day will ever forget it. The images of airliners deliberately flown into Manhattan skyscrapers and The Pentagon are permanently engraved in our minds, while the story of United Flight 93, which crashed into a Pennsylvania field that morning, brought new meaning to a simple two-word phrase, “Let’s Roll.”
Watching the twin towers of the World Trade Center burn and collapse, killing not only the occupants of those buildings but hundreds who had rushed to rescue them, was a terrifying sight. So many made the ultimate sacrifice that day, giving their all without a single thought of their own safety.
While we saw no images of the last minutes of United Flight 93, a brief recording of a passenger’s cellphone call painted an equally heroic but tragic picture. With the crew of the plane already overpowered by terrorists, a few brave passengers led by Todd Beamer prepared to storm the cockpit and regain control of the plane. The final words captured by that cellphone call were his: “Are you guys ready? Okay, let’s roll!” A few minutes later the plane crashed, killing all on board. As tragic as that was, the heroic “empty-the-tank” actions of those brave passengers foiled the plans of those terrorists to fly the plane into yet another crowded building.