The two biggest Oscar-bait films this winter are George Clooney's The Boys in the Boat and Michael Mann’s Ferrari(who also directed Heat, the most underrated Pacino and De Niro movie ever). Let's look at the key lessons for evaluating talent, finding focus, and pursuing a life of passionate excellence that both movies offer (no spoilers, we promise!).
Lesson 1: You Can Build a Better Body, But Can’t Measure Heart
To row crew in college, you have to be big, strong, and powerful. Back then as now, all the perennial contenders in collegiate rowing could fill their number one boat several times over with athletic specimens. But one of the main reasons that University of Washington’s Coach Al Ulbrickson was a master tactician is that he knew heart was more important than heart rate or natural athletic ability. Just putting Washington’s eight most talented rowers together wouldn’t yield a winning crew. What he needed was to experiment with his boat lineups and seat placements until he found the eight best teammates who’d pull together as one over the demanding 2,000-meter course.
The boys who ended up in Ulbrickson’s lead boat were certainly good athletes. But it was what we call “farm strong” when referring to corn-fed football players who build muscle in barns and fields, not gyms. The sons of loggers, miners, and other blue-collar trades, these young men were driven by a desire to break generational poverty and make a better life. Some, like the movie’s protagonist Joe Rantz, spent their summers jack-hammering rock to help build the Hoover Dam, while their rivals at UC Berkeley, Yale, and Harvard were lounging by pools and on beaches. In the end, grit beat privilege.
Lesson 2: Mind in Boat
When the Washington crew posed for a picture, something seemed off. There were eight young men who look like they were cut from the same cloth – tall, broad-shouldered, long-armed. Then off to one side was a short, slight kid who looked five years younger and probably would’ve been a prolific cross-country runner. This was George Morry, the coxswain. For the uninitiated, he was the one who steered the slight shell and set the number of times per minute the oars knifed through the water (aka stroke rate).
Rival crews were baffled as the diminutive Morry bellowed “M-I-B, M-I-B!” in a booming voice that belied his modest build at crucial moments in each a race, such as when during the finishing sprint or when one boat attempted a breakaway. This seemed like a random war cry but was really a crucial reminder for the boys to keep Mind in Boat. In the brilliant book that inspired Clooney’s film, Daniel James Brown wrote: “Nothing outside the boat – not the boat in the next lane over, not the cheering of a crowd of spectators, not last night’s date – can enter the successful oarsman’s mind.” What can you apply this to in your own life, and how will keeping mind in boat help you do what you love even better?
Lesson 3: Craftsmanship Counts
Here’s where both films come together. As much as the success of the U-Dub boat crew depended upon the Herculean efforts of the boys in the boat, they still needed the right vessel to propel them through choppy waters. This came not from some far-flung factory or even a domestic assembly line, but rather the hands of master boat builder George Yeoman Pocock. He had learned the trade from his father back in England and found his way to Washington, where he lovingly created each boat from a specific variety of locally sourced cedar in his workshop above the boat house. As we see in the film, Pocock was also like a horse whisperer, with an uncanny ability to speak just the right words when a young rower needed him the most. Plus, he pioneered a shorter rowing stroke that led to more speed on the water.
A few thousand miles away lies the town of Modena, Italy. There, Enzo Ferrari applied a similar level of care to his craftsmanship, as detailed by Brock Yates in the fine book that Mann’s movie is based on. He wasn’t just shaping fast cars, but also vehicles of exquisite beauty that set a new aesthetic high bar in automotive design. In the movie Ford v Ferrari, Henry Ford II’s emissaries explain to “the deuce” why Enzo rebuffed his attempt to buy the company when it was almost bankrupt. “He said Ford makes ugly little cars, and we make ‘em in an ugly factory,” (and went on to call Ford’s executives “sons of whores,” which sounds far more sophisticated in Italian).
Unlike both generations of Ford, Enzo insisted that his cars be hand built, much like Ferrari and Aston Martin still do to this day. Yes, it’s far less efficient than the assembly line model and doesn’t rely on trendy new technology. But the end product is unmistakably the highest caliber of car in the world. And while Ford eventually beat Ferrari at Le Mans (thanks to the ingenuity of Ken Miles and Carroll Shelby – see Christian Bale and Matt Damon in Ford v Ferrari), there’s no doubt that Enzo’s design philosophy has left a more indelible mark than the corporate men from Michigan ever made.
Lesson 4: You’re Not the Expert in Everything
In the Ferrari trailer, there’s plenty of tension on the racetrack. But the company’s cars are in danger of never even making it to the track again because Enzo has almost bankrupted Ferrari in his pursuit of perfection. And he had just about got there on the track, with Ferrari cars dominating races all across Italy and – even more meaningfully – the world’s most prestigious race: the 24-hour marathon at Le Mans.
Yet for all his genius, the company’s founder had zero grasp of even basic financial concepts. “Enzo, you’re going broke.”
“You spend more than you make.”
This example shows that just because you’re an expert at one thing – in Enzo’s case, designing exquisite race cars – doesn’t mean that you’re all-knowing. You need someone like Ferrari’s number two who can be honest with you about your shortcomings and entrust them to build a team to fill the gaps. Where are your blind spots? How can you focus your energies on what you do best – like designing cars, in Ferrari’s case, or Pocock building boats – by delegating all the things you’re not good at?