Last Saturday woke dry and warm. Noteworthy itself this summer. But particularly important that day.

We moved to Millbrook, New York eleven months ago but it has started to feel like home only in the last one. The sale of our house in Chicago had allowed us to finally burn our boats, and the fact we are once again living with our own furniture has had an immediate and reassuring impact. Many of us would like to be less affected by material things. But their impact on the psyche is palpable.

As a species, once we have security we turn quickly to exploration. A powerful formula for building a life and a business.

On this particular Saturday, exploration meant the Go-Kart sitting in the garage. The left-overs of a bygone age when a grandfather could spend $1,500 on a Christmas present for the kids and grandkids without first checking Bank of America’s closing share price.

I’d been ambivalent about the Kart. I’m not mechanical. I have a convertible Audi that continues to satisfy any remnants of a mid-life crisis. And a lot of country roads nearby. The prospect of driving a metal cage with an outboard engine, as my brother-in-law described it, was not compelling.

Until competition entered the frame.

Jon Collins has become a good friend over the last couple of years. We’re from the same generation of Englishmen with all the historical fabric that brings. Shared experiences provide long-term glue. Add common reference points to that, and you’ve got the makings of an important relationship.

Jon and his partner Sarah - as smart and wise as they come - had accepted a second invitation to come and stay for the weekend. And suddenly the Go-Kart took on an entirely different aura.

Go-Karts mean racing. Which means against something. And when that something becomes someone, what had once seemed unnecessary suddenly becomes essential. To compete. To learn. To strive. To share. Perhaps even to win. All get us up in the morning.

By the time of Jon and Sarah’s arrival, I had become intrigued, fascinated even by the mechanics of the thing. I had cleaned the air filter, checked the oil level, topped off the gas tank, tightened the bearings and greased the drive chain.

I dutifully waited until after lunch to suggest we take it for a spin. Jon needed no encouragement. I suspect, like me, he would have been happy if it had been item one on the agenda. And we spent the next hour in happy competition, time trialling our way round the bridle path in the bottom field.

My initial attempt of 00:01:03 displayed a cautious, uncertain approach. Jon’s of 00:58.09 upped the ante. Three or four attempts later, we both hovered in the 00:53:00 range and the goal became a sub 50 second lap.

As human beings we gravitate quickly to goals. We need to measure progress.

As a business owner, having a clear definition of success for yourself and your staff separates companies that excel from those that splash noisily to disguise the fact they’re treading water.

It’s also important to know your own limits. Sometimes you only learn those through trial and error. But make sure you have systems in place to minimize the damage.

Our limit at the moment is 00:51.09.

Jon is certain he was on his way to better that when he flipped over on the tightest turn, causing him and the Kart to end up on their sides with a blown tire and bruised arms and shoulders respectively to show for it. Fortunately, both are now fine.

In the process we learned two important lessons.

  1. Listening to cautionary words of wisdom before the event can be life saving. In this case Chris’s rule that we all wear a helmet regardless of our vanity or confidence prevented a very different outcome.

  2. Systems are only as good as how you use them. So from now on, everyone wears a seatbelt.

But we also learned there a sub 00:50:00 lap out there.

We’ll be back. Better and faster.

Goal. Trial. Learn. Improve.

A formula for progress in any weather.