“Explorer” is not a job title you find on everyone’s business card, but increasingly, exploring is everyone’s business. Work today involves traveling in uncharted territory, navigating the unfamiliar terrain of a new economy for which no maps exist. “We’re all explorers,” says Ballard. “I just do my exploring in a very graphic way. But we’re all in pursuit of fundamental truths. That’s what exploration is all about.”
Ballard’s 30-year career as an explorer has taught him to see his work as a circular process – one that he compares with the stages that define the epic journey of the archetypal hero: dream, prepare, assemble a team, go forth and lead, overcome obstacles, find truth, share new knowledge. They are, Ballard suggests, the same stages that any businessperson needs to traverse in order to take a project from original conception to final realization.
Ballard is president of the Institute For Exploration in Mystic, Connecticut, founder and chairman of the JASON Foundation for Education, and author of a number of books, including an autobiography, Explorations (with Malcolm McConnell, Hyperion, 1995). Fast Company asked Ballard what it means to explore – and what it takes to succeed.
To be an explorer is to have a dream. Your dream gives your life direction and helps you navigate day-to-day decisions. Let your dream inform your life: Look at opportunities through the dream’s filter, and ask yourself whether any given situation will move you closer to fulfilling it.
I’ve had my dream since I was a child. I knew I wanted to explore the bottom of the sea. There was one problem: No vehicle could take me there. Neither manned submersibles nor remotely operated vehicles existed yet. But I heard whispers about emerging technologies, like fiber optics and robotics, that I knew would be integral to my dream. I realized I had to learn to do what I call “parallel thinking” – to keep an eye on the various converging developments that would nudge reality closer to my dream.
I also had to learn how to sell my dream to others. Often I’ve felt more like a salesman than a scientist. When you’re selling your dream, you’ve got to sit down with your backers, explain everything as clearly as possible, and assure them that you will succeed. Look them in the eyes, and don’t blink. They never want to see you blink.
A true explorer never stops preparing for the next expedition. All my life I’ve been learning about the sea. It’s a never-ending process. I spent years mapping the virgin volcanic terrain of an underwater mountain range. As a geologist, I studied plate tectonics, volcanism, and complex hydrothermal processes. I spent most of my young adulthood under the sea – leading or participating in 110 expeditions. And each one prepared me for the next.
One key to preparation is understanding what’s around the corner. I’ve always been ahead of the curve. In 1973, I was advocating manned submersibles for underwater exploration. I wanted to reach the ocean floor, not remain miles above it. But a lot of high-profile and powerful geophysicists dominated research and the accompanying funding with their “proven” technology: surface ships and sonar. But by 1980, I was campaigning against manned submersibles, which by then were widely accepted. I was already on to the next paradigm for exploration: remotely operated vehicles.
I always think in terms of the future: Where do I want to be in 5, 10, or 15 years? It’s not hard to predict what’s coming. You just have to know how to see it. But most of us are too busy catching up with what’s in front of us to take the time to see what’s ahead. If you’re looking for the future, you can see it easily – it’s out there.
Assemble a Team
The right team is the heart of any expedition. When I meet someone, I know immediately whether I’d like to hire him – I go on my gut feeling. But I let my teams do all the hiring: If I hire someone, I’m forcing the team to accept him. If he makes a mistake, the team will be quick to point out that I hired the wrong person. But if the team hires a person and he makes a mistake, they’ll cover for him.
My expeditions are usually filled with highly intelligent people – scientists who are pursuing their own Golden Fleeces. But a ship is too small a place for a lot of egos. And the last person you’d want to follow 20,000 feet beneath the ocean’s surface is someone who is intellectually self-centered. So when I’m leading a team, I make sure that everyone on it benefits. I factor in different agendas: This guy is thinking of biology, that one is interested in paleolithic history, this one wants to test a new technology. Because if you focus on one small thing, you’ll be blind to the possibilities of what you could discover.
Go Forth and Lead
The primary job of an expedition leader is to control the big picture and let go of smaller things. A good leader knows that being effective means delegating authority. But you do run a risk: The person to whom you delegate authority can go off and do his own thing. On the expedition to find the Bismarck, I had chosen a graduate student to stand watch. Before I went to bed, I told him exactly what course to follow. When I awoke, I discovered that my course hadn’t been taken at all – his had! Not only had he disobeyed orders and wasted valuable time chasing his own hunches, but he had also failed. He started giving me a litany of excuses. I told him that I didn’t want excuses. He had a choice: Obey my orders, or get his own expedition. It was that simple.
But my biggest failure was an expedition I led in 1988 to survey the Mediterranean for traces of ancient shipwrecks. At the same time, I was also looking for signs of underwater volcanic activity and taking part in a geological survey. It was a complex expedition: We had a “National Geographic” film team on board. We had a regular ship’s crew of technicians, and I was the only scientist. It was a mistake not to have any colleagues along – there was no intellectual center. It was like having all enlisted men and no other officers.
Unlike most of my expeditions, this one lacked a concrete focus. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for. It was more of an intuitive search, and I failed to communicate to the crew the reasoning behind my strategy. After days of futile searching, rebellious factions formed that started to challenge my decisions. The entire fabric of the team began to unravel, and I realized that I had to abort the expedition. It was one of the most bitter and frustrating times of my career – and one that taught me a lot about leadership. But I refused to let this experience defeat me. In 1995 and 1997, I returned to the site and discovered the largest concentration of ancient shipwrecks ever found in the deep sea.
At every point in your journey, you’ll confront all types of obstacles. One of the most difficult to overcome is human – on both an individual and bureaucratic level. The trick is never to give up. Keep clashing against the bureaucracies that are in your way, and eventually they’ll give. If you’re relentless, one day you’ll bang against their door and they’ll be out to lunch or on a coffee break – and you can slip right through.
Another big obstacle you have to overcome is failure. If you fail – and you will fail – you have to work through it. The first time I went out to look for the Bismarck, I failed. But I came back and told my sponsors that at least I knew where it wasn’t. Then I rallied my troops around the failure, went out again, and succeeded.
But I think the biggest obstacle is fear. When we discovered the Titanic, 12,500 feet under the sea, we knew that we had to get it on film. To do that we had to fly Argo, our remotely operated deep-sea vehicle rigged with high-powered cameras, over the ship. But we couldn’t tell whether the ship was lying upright on the ocean floor. This was a vital detail. If it were upright, its four huge funnels, the fore and aft masts, the guy wires, and the radio antennae would jut up about 15 meters above the superstructure, creating a colossal cobweb. I knew that if I flew Argo in close, I could lose it – but the trouble was I wouldn’t know whether the ship was upright until I moved in.
I decided to take the risk. I chose my best people for the mission – the team I trusted the most, the one that kept watch while I slept. Earl Young was Argo’s remote pilot. He had only one sensor that told him what was beneath Argo. He couldn’t see at all what was in front. And the vehicle was heading straight toward the Titanic. We could see the sonar trace rising quickly on the screen – Argo was moving directly into this enormous mass. I told Young that it would feel like he was going to smash the vehicle right into the Titanic and that his every instinct would be to pull back. I could see his entire body tensing – his knuckles turning white.
For several agonizing minutes, Argo dropped in altitude until I realized that the Titanic was upright. We moved around cautiously until I saw that the ship’s masts and funnels had indeed toppled, which meant that the guy wires would be down and that there was no risk of tangling Argo in the rigging. But for those fleeting minutes, we risked losing everything.
Exploring, for me, has always been a way to obtain truths. The sea is an amazing trove of truths. In fact, there is more history on the ocean floor than in all of the museums in the world combined. When I think that no U.S. scientist has ever gone down in a deep submersible anywhere in the Southern Hemisphere, for instance, or explored the bottom of the Black Sea, it makes me wonder what chapters we’re missing from the history of the human race.
Of course, truth comes in a lot of different categories. I spent the first half of my life seeking the truths of natural history: underwater volcanoes, hydrothermal vents, plate tectonics. After discovering the Titanic, I realized I’d seen enough pillow lavas and tube worms for a lifetime. Now my interest is in human history. I want my explorations to find answers to the fundamental questions: who, what, where, when, and how. A discovery like the Titanic helps fill in the blanks of history. That’s what exploration should do.
Share New Knowledge
Sharing is the final step in the epic cycle. It releases you from your obligation. Columbus’s journey, according to myth, began when he said to Queen Isabella, “Give me your jewels, and I’ll explore the world.” His journey wasn’t finished until he returned with word of his discoveries.
After I discovered the Titanic, I received more than 10,000 letters from kids asking me about the experience. They wanted me to share my knowledge. So I created the JASON Foundation for Education, a nonprofit educational organization that beams live broadcasts of explorations to thousands of children worldwide. For instance, in 1990, about 200,000 kids journeyed “virtually” with my crew and me as we explored the wrecks of the Hamilton and Scourge – armed schooners that sank in Lake Ontario during the War of 1812.
In the end, that is the real work of the explorer: to share all that you’ve learned, to make it available to others, and to close the cycle that you started when you began the journey.
Anna Muoio (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an associate editor at Fast Company.
Contact Robert Ballard through the Institute For Exploration (www.mysticaquarium.org) or through the JASON Foundation (www.jasonproject.org).