It may not seem obvious, but Mr. Steve Fossett really is a man for our times. Why? Because this adventurer-athlete, who last week became the first solo balloonist to circumnavigate the globe, in some ways embodies our frenziedly competitive era and in others — particularly with his latest feat — gives us a glimpse of its opposite.
Competition is Mr. Fossett’s lifeblood. A commodities broker by trade (no job for shrinking violets), he is also a millionaire CEO. But that’s not what jumps out at you from his resume; millionaire CEOs are a dime a dozen. Unlike them, Mr. Fossett has also climbed Mount Kilimanjaro; swum the English Channel; finished the Iditarod dogsled race, the Ironman Triathlon and the 24 Hours of Le Mans car race; and holds world records in sailing and jet aviation. At 58, he has no plans to rest on the historic laurels he earned last week, either. After this, he wants to fly a glider into the stratosphere. In the competitiveness stakes, Mr. Fossett makes other powerful men look like parlor maids.
His drive to excel is so extreme it borders on the ridiculous. Does this man never rest? Goof off? Go slow? Just chill with his wife? No, he doesn’t, anymore than the compulsive toilers who invented the phrase 24-7, in thrall to the global economy on which night never falls. No one better embodies the ethos of overachievement that, some might argue, has triggered so many corporate meltdowns lately.
At the same time, though, last week he showed us something else: a man turning his back on our fast-paced, noisy world to sail off in that quietest and most outmoded of vehicles, a balloon. The effect was doubtless unintentional. Mr. Fossett’s balloon was decked out with all kinds of high-tech gear, and he wasn’t so much rejecting the rat race as going for one of its last remaining prizes. Yet here’s what we will remember of his feat, the same things we remember of Charles Lindbergh’s: the silence, the risk, the distance, the exhaustion, the elation. The frenetic Mr. Fossett has finally earned our awe.
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