How a Sailor Taught the Best Lesson in Innovation

What could be more innovative that understanding innovation through the lens of someone as unexpected as a sailor?

Written by Gijs van Wulfen [Website / Linkedin].
Originally published on Linkedin.

It was not one of my bosses who had the biggest impact on my professional life; no, it was a sailor, called Tristan Jones.

Tristan Jones (his real name was Arthur) was a Welsh author and mariner who wrote numerous sailing books. His stories tended to be a combination of both fact and fiction, although this last aspect I learned later. He taught himself to sail, and he taught himself to write. He was a natural at both, and he was a genuine storyteller. He died in 1995 and unfortunately I never met him in person. He had an enormous impact on my professional life with his first book “The Incredible Voyage,” published in 1977.

In “The Incredible Voyage,” he tells the story of establishing “the altitude record for sailing”, by taking a sailboat to the Dead Sea, the lowest open water on earth, and sailing it to Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest lake. He then hauled his sailboat across Bolivia to the Paraguay River, and sailed down through the Mato Grosso to Paraguay and Argentina.

It turned out to be a six-year voyage during which he a covered a distance equal to twice the circumference of the world. He was not allowed to launch his sailboat in the Dead Sea, though he did make a brief sailing voyage in a boat belonging to an Israeli naval officer; and while en route to Lake Titicaca, he sold the sailboat he had taken to Israel, and bought another. Tristan Jones just would not give up — even after dodging snipers on the Red Sea, capsizing off the Cape of Good Hope, starving in the Amazon, struggling for 3,000 miles against the mightiest sea current in the world, and hauling his boat over the rugged Andes three miles above sea level.

I have been a travel book reader since I was a teenager. I loved to read stories of the old discoverers like Magellan, Columbus, or Cook. And more recent explorer stories (like how Amundsen was first at the South Pole, how Hillary conquered Everest, and how Armstrong set foot on the Moon) really inspired me. All those stories proved that when you are out of your comfort zone pursuing a big goal, you are capable of doing so much more than you could have imagined in the first place. So when I was looking for a metaphor for a method on how to start innovation, it was for me obviously a map, an object that has guided innovators for centuries. In this way I connected my personal passion with my professional life in innovation.

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Now, I really love all my travel books, but the most impact on me as a innovation professional had Tristan Jones. I consider him as a mentor and took away from his first book three important lessons:

1. Think BIG

Jones set a goal to establish “the altitude record for sailing” by taking a sailboat to the Dead Sea, the lowest open water on earth, and sailing it to Lake Titicaca, the world’s highest lake. It was a rather curious and big goal. Nobody has ever done this before. I remembered this story when I had developed the FORTH method and was implementing it only in Dutch in The Netherlands, my home country, for five years. Then someone asked me out of the blue “What is your goal?” and I answered rather spontaneously “to spread the methodology all over the world because it really works.” Five years later this dream became reality, as my book “The Innovation Expedition” is available in six languages, and I travel all over the world to lecture about it.

2. Persevere

Jones really persevered. He thought he could sail up the Amazon toward Lake Titicaca. With a few hundred kilometers to go, it appeared he couldn’t and he had to sail back all the way through the Panama Canal to Peru. He continued whatever it took. This perseverance really resonates with me. When book publishers rejected translating my book, which happens a lot by the way, I kept looking for another one and another one until someone said yes.

3. Be flexible

Sticking to his goal to reach Titicaca with a sailboat, Jones was always looking for new ways to get there. Struggling with water, wind and wars he kept changing plans and routes. I learned to become more flexible myself. In 2011 I had chosen the BRIC-countries (Brasil, Russia, India, and China) to spread the methodology. The first country I aimed at was Brasil. I took a few language lessons, wrote and called publishers in Rio and Sao Paulo, and reached out to innovators via LinkedIn, but unfortunately nothing materialized. I changed my focus to Russia and China, where my books have been published and India, which I visited in 2013. Then March this year the innovation institution IEL-FIERGS in Porto Alegre asked me to come over to to train eight of their people as facilitator, as I did of course.

Think big, persevere and be flexible are three wise lessons of the sailor Tristan Jones that have guided me in my professional life. Thanks, Tristan!

P.S. “The Incredible Voyage” is still available in the online bookshops.

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