At the tender age of 17, Marco Polo, intrepid Italian adventurer and backyard swimming pool icon, left Italy and traveled with his father and uncle throughout the Orient. After an epic 24-year journey he returned home with exotic treasures and amazing tales of adventure.
200 hundred years later, inspired by Marco’s adventures, another young Italian set out on a quest for fame and fortune in the Orient. Or as they called it at the time, the East Indies.
To finance his project, he approached the kings of England, France, Portugal and Spain, and got blown off by them all. They thought his calculations were way off and his plan wouldn’t work.
And for good reason, because Christopher Columbus was a nut. Instead of taking the direct route, sailing up the Mediterranean, hanging a right through the Suez Canal and bang, there you are, Chris figured he’d go West to travel East and sail all the way around the globe to get there.
On one hand, he was embracing the idea that the world was not flat. He got the possibilities of a round planet. On the other hand, his calculations turned out to be off by about 17,000 miles. Oops!
Somehow he got a third chance in the Spanish Court. And somehow, whether it was all the practice from his earlier pitches or that Queen Isabella just liked the cut of his jib, Columbus got King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella to greenlight his project.
So on August 2nd of 1492, Columbus sailed west from Spain with his three ships, the Nina, the Pinta and his flagship the Santa Maria.
Sure enough, on October 12 , 524 years ago yesterday, Columbus did it. He landed on an island in the East Indies just off the coast of China, and declared all he surveyed to be under the domain of the King and Queen of Spain.
At least that’s what he thought he’d done.
Instead, in the greatest navigational blunder in history, Christopher Columbus got lost. He thought he’d sailed all the way around the globe and discovered a new route to China. But what he actually discovered was the Bahamas, Cuba and Haiti. He established a colony, and thinking he was in the “Indies”, named all the Haitian locals he met “Indians”.
What a maroon!
For centuries after we knew better we called them Indians too. But then the sixties came along, we invented political correctness and renamed them Native Americans. But I digress…
Columbus extracts all the gold he can from the local populace and spreads a lot of slavery and syphilis. He generally makes an Ugly Italian of himself, disrespecting cultures and property rights wherever he goes.
Despite all that, he becomes a huge hero. He brings treasure back to Spain and is granted three more trips. He never admits to his mistake, though, and America gets named after another guy. But Columbus gets a national holiday, a mess of places named after him, and for 148 years in a row, a fabulous parade in his honor throughout North Beach in San Francisco.
Let me ask you, what would happen if you were as bad at your job as Columbus was at his? Would you get three more trips and a parade, or would you get a crappy review, lose your bonus and get fired?
Here’s a guy who was a colossal screw-up by many accounts. But he took a big risk, believed in himself, and was the first to bring word of the New World back to Europe. That took some guts. That was a big deal. And that earned him street cred back home.
One day history will write your story. You may not be able to make as big a splash as a famous explorer, but you have the chance to inspire others by your actions. What will they say about you?
Will you be remembered for sticking to your convictions? Will you persist until someone funds your harebrained venture? Will you tame your Manic and unleash your Impressive? Then will you beat the odds and succeed at something even as you fail at other things?
Are you willing to make huge, historical mistakes? When you miscalculate and get miserably lost, will you blunder on, discover something else entirely, and plant your flag on it? I hope so.
Because 500 something years from now your mistakes may be glorified, your transgressions forgotten, and your name memorized in classrooms around the world. If you get out there and take some risks, maybe everyone will line the streets to watch your parade.