The year 1992 marked the 500th anniversary of the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus. A Spanish flotilla with dozens of sailboats commemorating the occasion crossed the Atlantic and arrived at port in many of the key cities in the lands where Columbus had arrived five centuries prior, and became a big attraction for both tourists and locals. In his second trip to the new world in 1493, he discovered Puerto Rico and named it Saint John the Baptist (San Juan Bautista), which today gives the name to its capital city. I was there at the ports in 1993 when the flotilla anchored for a few days and you could go see and board some of the vessels. The thing that impressed me the most was the size and configuration of the replica of one of the caravels I was able to board. I can’t recall exactly, but it must have been La Niña because it was small – scary small. I could not fathom how over two dozen men would dare get into this hopingly buoying vessel, with none of today’s instruments or communication capabilities and sail cross the uncertain waters and the mercy of unforeseeable weather. I wonder how many expected to make it to a safe destination and perhaps back.
In 2008 I went on a very memorable trip to Washington DC, where I was able to take a very close look at the Mercury 7 capsule which John Glenn flew in, becoming in 1962 the first American to orbit Earth. This time it was not a matter of not being able to fathom an idea. I was taken aback trying to imagine the courage anybody would need to get into such a tiny, claustrophobically cramped vessel and get suspended in orbit for tens of thousands of miles circling Earth at 17,000 miles per hour.
Columbus had a plan, and it was to discover a different route to get to Asia by circumnavigating the globe in the direction opposite which everybody in Europe took to get there. His travel plan would have worked beautifully if there had been no new continent in the way. He used tested means of travel and validated technology he was familiar with, and although a seasoned sailor in the waters he knew, decided to point his ships towards uncharted waters. He was looking for one thing and stumbled upon another one, changing the course of history.
John Glenn (and the hundreds of people at NASA) had a plan. They knew where he was heading and what the travel plan was. He and his team executed masterfully, using their knowledge and skills as test pilots, engineers, mathematicians, physicists, medical professionals. They used known means of travel and tested them under new conditions, validating empirically some of the technology they carried for the task. They analyzed probabilistically all the variances to each step in their plan and had contingencies in place to cover all the bases. I bet there were times of profound uncertainty and execution of contingency plans in the intermediate steps. I think we can safely say they did not stumble into any major unexpected situations that ultimately changed the outcome of the plan. The fact that they accomplished the amazing feat they had calculated, planned for and tested under simulated conditions partially over so long also changed the course of history. It also changed our confidence in our capacity to accurately scientifically understand and model the world around us and its phenomena.
As an entrepreneur, will you change the course of history? Will you, at least, change the course of YOUR history? I would argue that you could do that, and it’s only up to you. Your history is in many ways under better control than the ones our example protagonists operated under during their feats, and they changed their and everybody else’s history forever. Pick your vessel for the journey, hold on to your courage, draft a plan. The best that can happen is that you execute masterfully. In the worst case, you will stumble upon a different outcome. If you keep confidence and a scientific approach as your compass, you can be reasonably certain, even if you stumble upon a different outcome, that your history will change for the better.