July 2008

Striving for excellence: Fitting into the system

By Thomas Hudgin

A heavy mist hung in the air as I stepped off the bus and gazed at the tall buildings in front of me. Clearly out of my element, I was anxious, nervous, uncomfortable … even frightened over the prospects of the day's pending events.

Washington, D.C. seemed so far away from my small farm town in North Carolina, and for a fleeting moment, I wished I were back home. However, I had a mission.

Summoning a taxi, I leaped into the back seat while the driver threw my suitcase in the trunk. He slammed the lid, walked to the front door, rolled in, immediately pressed his foot hard on the accelerator, made a squealing, illegal, U-turn, and sped down Pennsylvania Avenue. "Uh, sir, aren't you a bit curious where I am going?" There was no response. "SIR, I WANT TO GO TO THE PENTAGON, please," I shouted.

"Right," he grumbled.

"Admiral Rickover's office," I added.


"You do know where that is, right?" He nodded. Somehow, I didn't believe him.

"The Pentagon is a big place. Are you sure you know where his office is," I repeated in disbelief.


We roared across the Potomac River, and by some miracle, we ended up in a massive parking lot by the Pentagon.

"Rickover's office is in there," the driver said waving his hand from one side of the windshield to the other.

"Right," I said feeling helpless. He opened his door, walked around to the rear of the taxi, lifted the trunk lid, and tossed my suitcase onto the pavement.

"That'll be $4," he snarled. I reached into my pocket and carefully counted out exactly $4 and gave it to him.

"Oh yes, I forgot. Here is your tip," I said with a twisted smile. I handed him a quarter, then grabbed my suitcase.

I began to ponder over possible questions the Admiral was going to ask me in determining my worthiness to attend the Navy Officer Candidate's School (OCS) to become a commissioned officer.

Thoughts were racing through my head about sharing with him my experiences at college, the courses I took, the fun times I had with my fraternity brothers …

I entered the front door and approached the receptionist. "Excuse me, Ma'am; I would like to see Admiral Rickover. Can you tell me where his office is?"

"Yes, his office is on the third floor. Do you have an appointment with him today?" she asked.

"Yes, at 2:00 o'clock."

She looked at her watch. "Well, you are a bit early. It's only 1:10. Let me call his secretary and see if he can see you now. What is your name, sir?"

"Thomas Hudgin from Wilmington, North Carolina. He's expecting me."

"All right, sir. Please sign in here and have a seat. I'll check on this for you."

About 20 minutes later a woman approached me. "I am Admiral Rickover's assistant." She shook my cold, sweaty hand. "Come with me. He's waiting for you."

We entered a series of offices until we arrived at his office, a large room with a huge desk. Standing in front of the desk was the Admiral. He was rather small in stature, perhaps 5 feet tall, and loaded with ribbons, medals, stars, and solid gold shoulder boards.

It was an awesome encounter. He greeted me and asked me to sit down. After a minute or so of small talk about my trip to Washington from North Carolina, he reached to his desktop and retrieved a single piece of paper.

It was a certified copy of my grades in school-my transcript. He looked at it for a few seconds, surely noticing the mostly B's and a few C's and an A or two on the record. Then he looked me straight in the eye and asked, "Is this the best you could do?"

The blood rushed out of my head to my feet. I was totally shocked by that question. I had no clue how to answer. I could not bear to look at his face and instead I stared at my feet.

It was all over. The interview was a complete failure … and barely two minutes had passed. There was no way I could answer that question positively. If I had said, "Yes sir," he surely would wish me a pleasant trip back to North Carolina and forget about OCS. 

If I responded by saying, "No, sir," he would ask me why not, and I did not have an answer for why not. It was a no win situation. I began thinking about that long bus trip back to North Carolina. I sat there in silence, stunned.

He stood in front of me in silence and waited. It was my turn to speak. He continued to wait. Finally, I could not bear it any longer, and I looked up at him with watery eyes and said, "No, sir, Admiral. That is not the best I could have done."

Admiral Rickover stepped forward, held out his hand, and said, "That's the right answer. I hope you enjoy Officer Candidate's School."

I smiled, shook his hand, and left his office. I was still in shock, and it took several hours before the realization of what really happened at that interview sunk in. I had made it to OCS. But I realized he told me something profound … a lesson that has stuck with me for the rest of my life, a lesson that has guided me in almost every decision, every task I have done ever since that momentous event. What was that all-important lesson? We must strive for excellence in everything we do. Do not accept good enough. It is the killer of excellence.

Translated that means whenever I do a job or make a decision, it is critical I ask myself one question. Is this the best I can do? If not, I am not there yet. Keep trying until it really is the best. B's and C's do not cut it.

Admiral Rickover told me that, but he did not say it. The message was clear. Moreover, the most rewarding thing of all in that brief interview was that he had confidence I would change my approach to life and strive for excellence. He knew I would see things differently when I walked out his office door. I could no longer get away with just "good enough" and be successful.

I finished Officer Candidate's School, received a commission in the U.S. Navy, and stayed in the service 20 years, retiring as a Commander.

Thanks to the Admiral, my life changed forever on that misty day in Washington 45 years ago. The bus ride back to North Carolina was a thing of joy.

I never saw the taxi driver again.


Tom Hudgin (tomhudgin@earthlink.net) has degrees in chemistry, mathematics, and an MBA. He retired from the U.S. Navy as a Commander and worked in the pharmaceutical industry for 30 years in senior management. This tale comes from Hudgin's leadership and motivation presentation at the recent CSIA (Control Systems Integrators Association) in Savannah, Ga., this spring.

Nuclear navy: 'Integrated whole of many factors'

Admiral Hyman George Rickover, United States Navy, was the "Father of the Nuclear Navy," which as of 2007 had produced 200 nuclear-powered submarines, and 23 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and cruisers.

With his unique personality, political connections, responsibilities, and depth of knowledge regarding naval nuclear propulsion, Rickover became the longest-serving active duty military officer in U.S. history with 63 years of continuous service.

Rickover's substantial legacy of technical achievements includes the U.S. Navy's continuing record of zero reactor accidents.

He was hyperactive, political, blunt, confrontational, insulting, flamboyant, and an unexcelled workaholic who was always demanding of others-without regard for rank or position-as well as himself.

Admiral Rickover was a thundering force of nature and a lightning rod for controversy. Moreover, he had little tolerance for mediocrity, none for stupidity.

He died in 1986.