I first stepped foot on a sailboat on the coast of Maine in the fall of 2005. From the moment we hoisted the mainsail on that sixty-foot wooden schooner it was love at first sail. I have yet to experience anything as relaxing as the rhythm of the boat bouncing against the bow wave, the popping of the sails, the clanging of the lines against the mast like a steel drum line. Upon returning to the Midwest, I was fortunate to meet a friend with a boat that would teach me to sail.
Over the years, I have learned that sailing mirrors many aspects of life and I have been particularly mindful of lessons I learned from a boat that have helped me navigate my career. Lessons such as:
Choose your boat (company) wisely.First and foremost, your boat must be seaworthy and your company sound. Before you buy that beautiful-looking boat in the marina, you are definitely going to make sure the hull is sound and the sails are not torn. In the same way, when choosing a company, you want to work for one with strong business fundamentals and an inspiring vision. But you should also choose a company based on the environment in which you think you will thrive. If you like excitement and agility, you might choose a 24’ racing yacht (a startup). But if you are a fan of safety and steadfastness, that 60’ schooner (Fortune 500 company) is more your style. Do your homework and know yourself.
Know the waters:
A good sailor never sails in waters without consulting the nautical chart to plot the best course and to avoid the obstacles. You should always have a map of your career in mind and a pathway to achieve your career goals. Just as you are at the mercy of the wind in a boat, your career is also subject to forces outside of your control. In both cases the path is almost never short or straight, but paying attention to your sails and the wind will allow you to chart a successful course. It is also crucial to seek out a trusted guide. In the world of sailing you need a good captain, but in your career you need mentors with enough experience to know your field, your path, and the possibilities so that they can help you “read the chart” and help you make the connections that will lead to a fulfilling career.
Weather the storm:
Lastly, you will probably never be so lucky to experience smooth sailing every time. Storms will come that will challenge your meddle and resolve. One of the pioneers of the protein folding field was Fred Richards. Fred was also an avid sailor. When he passed away a few years ago, one of his students, Frank Schley, said this about his former mentor:
"From you I learned not to fight the storm. The storm will always win. Secure your lines, shorten your sails and wait. The storm will pass and the world will settle down. There is no reason to batter yourself and your boat trying to maintain speed. Have patience, Boyo. Just slow down. You taught it is not failure to heave to for awhile, it is wisdom."
Often when circumstances in our industry become uncertain, when we find ourselves in a storm, we can spend copious amounts of energy and time on things outside of our control. Those are the times we should heave to, focus on things within our control, come out of the storm safely, and make it to our destination with boat and crew intact.
These are a few of the important things I’ve learned about my career from sailing. Choose a good boat (company), find a skilled captain (mentors), know the waters in which you sail (career), and you will likely come out fine. Until next time, happy sailing!
Jeff Seale is a Science Fellow at Monsanto where he has worked for 18 years building world-class protein engineering platforms and developing the next generation of science leaders. Outside of work he enjoys watching his children's artistic and athletic endeavors, sailing with friends and working to end extreme global poverty with the ONE Campaign.