What Man Has Done, Man May Do

Kennon-Green & Co. Fiduciary Financial Advisor, Wealth Management, Global Value Investing

What man has done, man may do. – Proverb

On May 6th, 1954, at Oxford University’s Iffley Road Track, Roger Bannister became the first recorded man in history to run a mile – exactly 5,280 feet – in less than 4 minutes.  His time, 3:59:04, was thought unachievable.  Men had tried countless times and failed.  This speed corresponded to a sustained rate of 15 miles per hour, compared to the male average of 6 to 11 miles per hour.

What Man Has Done, Man May Do

When Roger Bannister broke the four minute mile barrier, male athletes throughout the world, who had tried unsuccessful for years to achieve the same feat, magically found themselves able to do it. What had changed? The knowledge that the task was possible. Image © Pixland/Thinkstock

Once Bannister had attained his crowning accomplishment, everything changed.  Male athletes throughout the world regularly achieved the same feat.  Today, the 4 minute mile is the standard for all professional middle distance runners.

What changed?  The mere knowledge that one man had been able to do it meant that it was possible.

Many times in life, the only barriers that stop us from what we want are those we erect in our own mind.  That is, as long as the playing ground is equal and we live in a society of laws wherein a man or woman doesn’t have to worry about getting killed, robbed, or imprisoned without due process, the thing that most determines our outcome in life is how we think.  We are our thoughts.

To explain what I mean, consider the following question:

If Bill Gates were suddenly to wake up in the body of a dead-beat living off government welfare in the middle of nowhere, how long do you think it would take before he once again owned nearly everything around them?  What about Warren Buffett?  Jack Welch?  Peyton Manning?  Abraham Lincoln?  Henry Ford?  Carlos Slim?  Madonna?

I don’t think it would take much time for any of these people to rise from seeming obscurity, even though they’d find themselves with no money, no education credentials, and a poor reputation.  I trust that their minds are sufficiently capable that they would find a way to solve the predicament and they have a temperament that results in relentless self-improvement and discipline.  The only thing that changed was the mind – all external circumstances were the same, but it is the way men like Buffett and Gates think that results in the different outcomes they receive.

When I was in college, I once wrote Warren Buffett a thank you note because, above all, he helped me create a framework for how to think properly.  I had no interest in knowing what stock he was buying, but rather, how he approached solving the analytical side of his work.  The great treasure he had given the world was not the necessarily the product, but the tool.  The tool, the framework, will outlast his lifetime and even Berkshire Hathaway.  And Buffett’s greatest gift was, in many ways, introducing me to the writings of Charlie Munger and the mental model concept.  It changed my life more than anything else I’ve ever learned anywhere, at any time.  It accelerated my success and it felt like the mental equivalent of the first time I put on glasses after learning that my eyesight was terrible (but not realizing it because I didn’t know any better).

Whenever you are contemplating achieving something that seems difficult or impossible, remind yourself: What man has done, man may do.  It took tens of thousands of years to conceive and create skyscrapers, now they are common.  In the case of Roger Bannister and the four minute mile, male athletes throughout the world who had tried in vain to break the four minute mile barrier suddenly found themselves able to do it, driven by nothing but the knowledge that it had been done and was possible.

But a warning: This is exciting as long as you don’t fool yourself into thinking your accomplishments are eternal.  Someday, an investor will come along that beats Warren Buffett – after all, who’d have ever thought that Sam Walton from Arkansas would be a household name when most have forgotten the staggering Woolworth fortune?  Live your life for the joy of your task, and love the process more than the proceeds, and you are going to be fulfilled.