Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

The Path of Our Lives

By Steve Blank

Some men see things as they are and say, why;

I dream things that never were and say, why not


Robert Kennedy/George Bernard Shaw

I got a call that reminded me that most people live their life as if its predestined but some live theirs fighting to change it.

At 19 Ijoined the Air Forceduring the Vietnam War. Out of electronics school my firstassignment was to afighter base in Florida. Myroommate, Glen, would become my best friend in Florida and Thailand as we were sent to different air bases in Southeast Asia.

An Enemy Attack May Make Your Stay Here Unpleasant

On the surface, Glen and I couldnt have been more different. He grew up in Nebraska, had a bucolic childhood that sounded like he was raised by parents fromLeave it to Beaver. I didnt, growing up in a New York City apartment that seemed more like an outpatient clinic. Yet somehow we connected on a level that only 19-year-olds can. I introduced him toRichard Brautiganand together we puzzled through R.D. LaingsThe Politics of Experience. We explored the Everglades (and discovered first-hand that the then-new national park didnt have any protective barriers on their new boardwalks into the swamps and that alligators sunning themselves on a boardwalk look exactly like stuffed ones until you reach out to touch them.) In Thailand I even figured out how to sneak off base for a few days, cross Thailand via train, visit him in his airbase and convince everyone I had been assigned to do so (not that easy with a war on.) The chaos, the war, our age and our interests bonded us in a way that was deep and heartfelt.

steve in Thailand 2 ARL-46Yet when the Vietnam War wound down, we were both sent to bases in different parts of the U.S. And as these things happen, as we grew older, more people and places came between us, and we went on with our lives and lost touch.

Four Decades Later

Last week I got an email with a subject line that only someone who knew me in the Air Force could have sent. While that caught my attention, the brief note underneath stopped me in my tracks. It read, You have crossed my thoughts through the years. The other night you appeared in my dreams. I actually remembered it in the morning and googled your name. By God, there you were. A bit overwhelming

You bet it was overwhelming, its been 40 years since I last heard from Glen.

On the phone together, I spent an hour with an ear-to-ear grin as both of us recounted, when we were young, crazy and stupid stories, stories I still wont tell my children (which makes me grateful it was life before social media documented every youthful indiscretion.) Glen even reminded me of my nickname (which still makes me cringe.) The feel of long forgotten camaraderie let me wallow in nostalgia for a while. But as Glen began to catch me up with the four decades of his life, it was clear that while we both had the same type of advanced electronics training, both had been on the same airbases, and essentially both had been given the same opportunities, our careers and lives had taken much different paths. As he talked, I puzzled over why our lives ended up so different. Listening to him, I realized I was hearing a word I would never use to describe my life. Glen used the word predestined multiple times to describe his choices in life. His job choices were predestined, where he lived was predestined, who he married and divorced had been predestined. I realized that our world views and how we lived our lives differed on that one single word.


The path of our lives

While the call brought me back towhen we were foolish and fearless,thinking about how Glen lived his life troubled me. It took me awhile to figure out why. I wasnt bothered about anything that Glen did or didnt accomplish. It was his life and heseemed happy with it.Hearing his voice brought back those days of enthusiasm, exploration, adventure and unlimited horizons. But listening toforty years of a life lived summed up as preordained feltlikea sharp reminder of how most people live their lives.

Glens worldview wasnt unique. Most people appear to live an unexamined life, cruising through the yearswithout much reflection aboutwhat it means, and/or taking what life hands themand believing its all predestined.

As Ive gotten older Ivecome to grips thatthe unexamined life iswhat works for most people. Most take what they learned in school, get a job, marry, buy a house, have a family, become a great parent, serve their god, community and country, hang with friends and live a good life. And for them thats great.stages of awareness

Some do want more out of life, butblame theircircumstances on others their parents or government or spouse or lack of opportunities, but almost never on their own lack of initiative. Initiative means change and change is hard for most. (Clearly there are still pockets in the world where opportunities and choice are limited but they are shrinking daily.)

Perhapsthe most painful to watch arethose whowake up later in life thinking, I could have or I should have.

Pushing the Human Race Forward

Whether we have free will or whether our lives are predestined has been argued since humans first pondered their purpose in life. The truth is we wont know until thesecond comingor the solution to themany-worldstheory.

But what we know with certainty is thatthere is a small set of humans who dont act like their lives are predestined. For better or worse, regardless of circumstances, country or culture they struggle their entire lives wanting to change the outcome. And a small percentage of these translate the wanting to change intoacting on it. This small group is dissatisfied with waiting for life to hand them their path. They act, they do, they move, they change things.

Those born into poverty actively strive to change their own lives and that of their children. Those who want to start a company or join one quit their job and do it, while others try to change their political system or fight for social or environmental justice.

And the irony is while the individual stories are inspiring they are trying to tell a much bigger story. These misfits, rebels and troublemakers have beenpopping up in stories for thousands of years. Every culture has myths about larger than life heroes who rose from nothing.This archetype is arecessive gene common to all cultures. They are the ones that make things happen, theyre the ones thatpush the human race forward.

This is what makes and drives entrepreneurs.Our heads are just wired differently.

You Are Master of Your Own Fate

The world is much different then when Glen and I were young and foolish. In the past, even if you did feel this spirit of adventure, you had no idea how and where to apply it. Barriers ofrace, gender or location threw up roadblocksthat seemed insurmountable.

The world is much smaller now. The obstaclesarent gone but are greatly diminished. Everyone within reach of a smartphone, tablet orcomputer knows more about entrepreneurship and opportunity and where to get it then all of Silicon Valley did 40 years ago. Theres no longer an excuse not to grab it with both hands.

As far as we know, this life isnt practice for the next one. For entrepreneurs thekey to living this one to the fullest is the understandingthat you can choose thatyou do have a choice to effect the journey and change the rules,that you can decide to give it your best shot to do something, something extraordinary.

If your passion is startups and innovation, and your community, region or country doesnt have an entrepreneurial culture and community help start one. If theres no funding for startups in your community -get up and move to where it is. If youre in a company frustrated with the lack of opportunity- change jobs.

You aremaster of your own fate.Act like it.

Lessons Learned

    The same destiny overtakes us all

    Its what you choose to do with your life in between that makes the difference