While on assignment for Whittle Communications LP, researching the “X-factor” of excellence, Plimpton receives an assignment from SPORTS ILLUSTRATED to interview George Bush. When Plimpton visits Bush, he loses to Bush at horseshoes, and with an invitation to a rematch, Plimpton is inspired to look into this X-factor, and so he interviews a number of successful people.
Davis Cup tennis player Gene Scott suggests that, regardless of specific skills, the X-factor is an attitude. Football coach Bill Curry says that there are five rules for achieving excellence: singleness of purpose, unselfishness, toughness in sticking to the rules, smartness (knowing your business), and never quitting. Former Green Bay Packer Willie Davis says that the things Vince Lombardi taught his teams about football turned out to be the same things needed to succeed in anything. Anthony O’Reilly of H. J. Heinz Company learned his success from rugby, and encourages these rules in all who work for him: communality, collegiality, common purpose. The Watsons, of IBM, base their success on doing a job well, treating others with dignity and respect, dressing neatly, forthrightness, optimism, and loyalty. Henry Kravis, who engineered the takeover of RJR Nabisco, says that the secret is playing as a team, and he encourages that in his company by making everyone part owner. James D. Robinson III of American Express bases his success on what he has learned from golf. Michael Novak and Billie Jean King also talk about sports as a training ground for success.
Plimpton at last goes to the rematch with George Bush, and they talk about the X-factor. Bush suggests that he gets energy from the pressure of a crowd, and the pressure of wanting to win, especially if he is losing. When they finally play, as Plimpton is remembering all that he has learned in preparing for this, Bush beats him soundly.