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What makes you unique?

July 1, 2013

According to genetics, there is not much that makes us humans different from one another, or indeed other animals – we share 98.5% of our genes with chimpanzees. Perhaps this is not such a significant matter – but we also share about 60% of our genes with tomatoes!

We all wonder what makes us different and unique. From the moment we are old enough to understand the concept of uniqueness, I think we all want to know what it is that makes us stand out.  We want to be inimitable, and ensure that we remain distinctive one-way or another.

For some people it means becoming the best in their field and being memorable.  Others do not focus on their own individuality so much, but will still try to have some aspect of their life or personality that is truly theirs alone.

I think that we make ourselves unique by what we do, how we live and the way in which we interact with other people.  We do not have to try very hard to be different as it comes naturally, however many fight uniqueness in order to fit in, to belong or be accepted.  Some people have adapted to try to hide their exclusive traits so not to be judged as out of the ordinary.

The phrase You’re unique, just like everyone else! springs to mind. A lot of things make me who I am, and everyone is special in some way. However, one of humanity’s greatest problems is complacency, in that not everyone pushes themselves to make the most of their uniqueness, to realise their potential and make their mark.

Just recently I’ve been reading about two remarkable people who did make their mark – Jim Wallwork and Carl Elsener. Both were a bit special and displayed a number of traits we can learn from as we go about our everyday lives with a desire to push ourselves and be the best we can be.

James Wallwork was born in Salford on October 21, 1919. A useful rugby player at Salford Grammar School, by May 1942 he was with the RAF, having joined the newly formed Glider Pilot Regiment. After training in North Africa he flew a commando-carrying glider, the Horsa, behind enemy lines during Operation Husky, the allied invasion of Sicily in 1943, where bad weather and mistimed release led to the loss of almost a third of more than 130 British gliders, most of them into the sea.

Back in England, some months later he began the training and research for a secret mission. A few days before D-Day they were told their objective: to support the Allied invasion of Northern France and capture two Normandy bridges. The accuracy required for the mission to succeed require planning, research, fine-tuning and experimentation. A Halifax bomber towed Horsa No 1 (nicknamed Lady Irene) from Dorset at 10.45pm on 5 June 1944, flown by Wallwork.

At 6,000 feet, the Halifax bombers release the gliders, and the Horsas tiptoed quietly into two little fields in Normandy and released 180 fighting men to give the German garrison the surprise of their lives.

Wallwork was flying the lead glider, and he saw the twin waterways in the moonlight as he descended. He flew a perfect circuit to land within a few yards of the well-defended bridge.

His Horsa hit the ground at 95mph and ploughed through barbed wire defences before the cockpit collapsed, and the glider ended up on an embankment closer to the Caen bridge than he could have dreamed of.

He was often described as the first allied serviceman to set foot on French soil on D-Day. It was a description that caused him some mirth since, after crash-landing his Horsa glider next to the Caen bridge 20 minutes into 6 June 1944, he was thrown headfirst through the Perspex windscreen and hit French soil on his belly.

Despite injuries to his head and knee, Wallwork dragged his co-pilot Sergeant Johnnie Ainsworth from the wrecked cockpit and carried ammunition for the troops. With their faces blackened they stormed the Caen bridge and captured it within minutes.

Wallwork helped, he said, to liberate the first building in France, the local café, whose owner Georges Gondrée appeared with glasses of champagne. Gondrée’s daughter still runs the café today.

Wallwork received the Distinguished Flying Medal for the daring operation. It was one of the most outstanding flying achievements of the war. The bridge was renamed Pegasus in honour of the Glider Pilot Regiment, whose emblem was the mythological winged horse and whose motto was Nihil est impossibilis – nothing is impossible.

Soon he was taking part in Operation Market Garden and flying another Horsa glider at Arnhem in September. The following March he took part in Operation Varsity, flying a bigger glider, a Hamilcar, to transport a 17-pounder anti-tank gun to troops crossing the Rhine in the final push to Berlin.

Wallwork had the extremely rare, possibly unique, distinction of flying a glider on the four major Allied airborne landings: Sicily, Normandy, Arnhem and the Rhine. At the end of the war he left the Army as a staff sergeant, and in 1957 emigrated to British Columbia, where he worked for a supply business before running a small livestock farm east of Vancouver. Sadly, he died earlier this year, on January 24.

Carl Elsener started as a teenage apprentice cutler straight from school, and went on to turn a relatively simple penknife into the global phenomenon that is the multi-functional Swiss Army Knife. He worked for the Swiss family firm Victorinox for 70 years, 57 of them as CEO. He died four weeks ago at the age of 90.

The famous red-handled knife with the Swiss white cross has held a lifetime fascination for me, offering a spoon, fork, compass, screwdriver, mini-screwdriver for spectacles, can opener, wood and metal saw, toothpick, tweezers, scissors, pliers, key ring, fish-scaler and magnifying glass.

Moving with the times, some latest models come with an LED light, laser pointer, USB memory stick, digital clock, Bluetooth or even MP3 player. He’s up there with Steve Jobs as my greatest innovator of all time, mainly because of the fascination his memorable device had upon me as child, and its lasting impression of ingenuity.

Elsener presided over Victorinox’s expansion into other products, including watches, clothing, luggage, rucksacks and fragrances. The ‘war on terror’ after 9/11 had seen sales of the Swiss Army Knife plummet 50% after they were prohibited from airline hand baggage, but the new product range helped keep the family firm afloat.

Today, 60,000 knives are produced daily providing current annual revenues of more than $500m and making Victorinox the largest cutlery manufacturer in Europe.

It started when Elsener’s grandfather opened a cutlery business in 1884. In 1891 the company won its first contract with the Swiss army. After the founder’s mother died in 1909, he chose her name, Victoria, as his trademark; in 1921 it became Victorinox to reflect the use of stainless steel in the product.

Elsener took over as CEO from his own father in 1950 when the knives were still made by hand. After introducing machine production, he quickly recognised the popularity of his Offiziersmesser (‘Officer’s Knife’) among US army, navy and air force personnel based in post-war Europe. It was the Americans who, unable to get their tongues round Offiziersmesser, first called it the Swiss Army Knife.

He was a tireless man who could work at the office until two in the morning. When he woke up in the middle of the night with an idea, he wrote it down on the wallpaper so as not to forget it. Despite his success, his motto remained: Gueti sache chone immer no bässer wärde – Good things can always be made better. 

So, what made Wallwork and Elsener unique? For me, there are five special traits we can take from these two outstanding men:

1. Questioning Both were filled with curiosity, showing a passion for inquiry. Their thought-provoking attitude frequently challenged the status quo, Why does it need to be done like this? If we tried this, what would happen? Both were renowned for asking questions to understand how things really were, why they were that way, and how they might be changed or disrupted. Their questions provoked new insights, connections, possibilities, and directions.

2. Observation Wallwork, in particular, was an intense observer. He studied and made the observations from frequent practices with the Horsa glider, helping gain insights and ideas for new ways of doing things. He didn’t waste much time in letting the mistakes or the naysayers get to him. He was regarded as a very open minded man, literally making things up as he went along. Next time, we just picked ourselves up, made a note of what went wrong, and tried again and succeeded.

3. Networkers Both men spent a lot of time and energy finding and testing ideas through a diverse network of individuals who varied wildly in their backgrounds and perspectives. Rather than simply doing social networking or networking for resources, they actively sought for new ideas by talking to people who offered a radically different view of things. This thinking out of the box provided different stimuli from surprising sources, and gave them new perspectives they hadn’t considered.

4. Experimenters Simply, both were experimenters, constantly trying out new experiences and piloting new ideas. Experimenters unceasingly explore the world intellectually and experientially, holding convictions at bay and testing hypotheses along the way. They visit new places, try new things, seek new information, and experiment to learn new things, underpinned by a really advanced intellectual curiosity. In Wallwork’s case, this was literally a matter of life or death.

5. Restlessness Innovators like Wallwork and Elsener always think there is a better way, and with their passion driving them on, know that they are missing something. They embrace constraints as opportunities and celebrate their vulnerability. Both failed with new designs, but in a pragmatic, thoughtful way, their great ideas coming to fruition after following their instincts with persistence. As outliers, their uniqueness is driven by a constant need to challenge status quo and find better ways of doing things.

They were both extreme optimists by nature. Optimism is probably the most important trait you need to believe change is possible and overcome resistance. Whilst it’s not necessarily a feature of uniqueness, sometimes you also have to ignore convention. Curious, brave, risk taking rule breakers, being slightly mad/reckless helps!

However, I think the key characteristic of both Wallwork and Elsener was their passion. They truly cared about what they were doing, investing time, thought and effort into creating something that made a difference. It’s this passion, combined with a willingness to fail, and learn from those mistakes, that truly marks those with stand-out qualities.

Both Wallwork and Elsener saw no boundaries in what they were trying to achieve. They strove to be forward thinking every day to embrace the challenge facing them. Crucially, they didn’t just talk about stuff, they did it, and with belief and self-confidence and passion. As a result, they were unique, making their mark beyond what most of us can only dream to achieve.

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