Does Being First Matter?
On April 5, Ezra Cooley set out from Chico, Calif., with his trusty steed, Red, and his packhorse, Jahob, to become the first person to circle the world on horseback. He's now somewhere in Wyoming and expects the endeavor to take five to six years.
"I wanted my name to live on," says the 26-year-old, who says he is a competitive rodeo champion. He's enamored of the idea of posterity but settled on this specific feat because it also taps into his inner cowboy. "I've always wanted to do something on horseback that no one else has ever done," says Cooley.
In an era when so many firsts have been conquered, finding new ones almost seems to require such creativity. Social critic Watts Wacker calls the scramble to keep making new firsts particular to America. Americans tend to glorify the pursuit of all things bigger and better, rather than merely paying homage to tradition. Creating new firsts is a key part of that pioneering image.
They also "give us some sense of meaning about the direction of where society is going," says Wacker, a self-proclaimed futurist and coauthor of the 500 Year Delta, a study of how societal changes affect businesses. Every new breakthrough we achieve leads us directly to another new barrier to conquer, whether it's in the arena of politics or technology. As society advances, we're likely to see more firsts that push the envelope: first human clone, first person on Mars, first female and/or African-American president.
But does being first really have the upper hand over being second or even fifth? Sometimes getting the formula right matters more than doing it first. The Constitution was our second attempt at a governing document (Page 60), The Sound and the Fury was Faulkner's fourth published book, and World War I really didn't end all wars. Henry Ford not only did not invent the automobile; turns out he didn't invent the assembly line either (Page 72). Coca-Cola wasn't the first soft drink; that credit goes to either Vernor's ginger ale or Hires root beer. Even casual movie buffs know that The Godfather Part II, which won six Academy Awards, is superior to its predecessor, which collected only three.
Indeed, while first may get its place in history books, it's when the second example comes along that the feat becomes part of the "cultural zeitgeist," says Wacker. Charles Lindbergh was the first to fly solo across the Atlantic, but when Amelia Earhart did it, the feat began its move toward becoming a commonplace occurrence. Apollo 11 made history, but Apollo 12 kept the mission from being a one-hit wonder, paving the way--maybe--for the first commercial flights to the moon.
That race is already on,with billionaires ponying up small fortunes to make that piece of history happen. Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen spent $26 million to win the $10 million Ansari X Prize in 2004, awarded to the first private craft to make a suborbital flight twice in two weeks.
While cash lent the prize credibility, money was not the reason that 24 explorers pursued the title, says Peter Diamandis, who dreamed up the contest. Participants are in it for the recognition and sense of purpose, he says. "Every time someone pulls off a first, people subconsciously realize that means there will be a better world for us," explains Diamandis. "It gives us hope because our entire future is filled with firsts."
Perhaps that's ultimately what makes first so special: its simplicity, devoid of nuance or subjectivity. Deciding whether something is best is often nearly impossible, as everyone brings his own measurements to the equation. But placing the number 1 next to a name lends it an undeniable instant credibility, plus heft, praise, and attention.
Cooley, the adventurous cowboy, recently has decided to use his round-the-world trip attempt and the publicity it has garnered to raise funds for the National Children's Cancer Society. "Being the first person to do something, that's an awesome thing," he says.
It's also a pretty reliable way to get your name into trivia questions, crossword puzzles, and magazines.
This story appears in the August 14, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.