More on the Confluence of Spring Break

First published April 2, 2009 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Starting in the 1400s, an explosion of exploration came from Europe called the Age of Discovery. Prior to that, the world was a much smaller place. In fact, the end of the world was reckoned to be somewhere past Cape Bojador in West Africa. But during this time of exploration, the boundaries of the world were pushed back dramatically. By the end of the 15th century, Bartolomeu Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope, Vasco da Gama sailed by this route to India and Christopher Columbus had sailed to the new world. Just 20 years later, Ferdinand Magellan would become the first to circumnavigate the globe. In just over 100 years, the world as we know it was discovered. And it was all due to one person: Prince Henry the Navigator.

Meet Prince Henry

Prince Henry was born in 1394, the third son of King John I of Portugal. At the age of 27, his father made him governor of the province of Algarve, in the south of Portugal (coincidentally, where I spent my spring break family vacation). Although he became known as Prince Henry the Navigator or Seafarer, neither is very close to the truth. Prince Henry spent little time on a boat. Henry was really more a very capable administrator. He built the foundations that would propel Portuguese explorers to explore the world, expand the empire and bring untold wealth back to Portuguese shores. Henry set in motion a chain of events that changed history.

Henry accomplished this through four tasks:

  • He convinced Portuguese patrons, primarily the very wealthy Order of Christ, to provide a consistent source of funding for discovery, allowing for ongoing exploration.
  • He ordered the development of the much lighter and faster caravel, which allowed for more precise coastal navigation and faster crossings. It became the preferred vessel for Portuguese exploration.
  • He created a center for navigational education and cartography at Sagres, where the Portuguese developed the techniques to allow them to sail much further away from land, something that almost certainly would have resulted in disaster before this.
  • He created a “revenue model” for exploration, convincing his family of the benefits of opening up the spice and incredibly lucrative slave trade (moral judgments aside), all flowing into the nearby port of Lagos (where we stayed during our vacation).

In short, Henry created the conditions for success that lead to the explosion of discovery. The desire to break the Portuguese stranglehold was why Spain financed Columbus’s journey (rumor has it that Columbus spent time at Sagres). And the later period of English discovery was also precipitated through competition with Portugal and Spain. And it all began with an effective administrator.

Taking a Lesson from History

Now, let me draw together my three disparate ideas that I started last week, (although I’m sure you’re already well ahead of me):

  • In “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell argues that success isn’t pure chance. It’s a combination of conditions that can be planned and set in place. Certainly, Vasco da Gama didn’t luck into his discovery of the route to India
  • Ray Kurzweil (whether or not you agree with his vision of the future) shows that technology can release us from the constraints that threaten our world, including disease, poverty, environmental damage and even death.
  • And Henry the Navigator provides historical proof of the value of a visionary and capable administration.

We who are fortunate enough to find ourselves in rich, developed countries have enjoyed a disproportionate share of success. Even during the current financial turmoil, we are still, by far, the wealthiest and most advantaged people on the face of the earth. But we cannot move forward with a misbegotten sense of entitlement or by taking our success for granted. We have to put the foundations in place that will lead to success in a new and dramatically different world. We have to follow in Henry’s footsteps, building the foundations that will lead to discovery and expansion of our world. If we don’t, someone else surely will. In fact, they already are. To the East, exactly those foundations are currently being put in place.

We need an administration that is capable of building this foundation. And here, we can learn a lesson from history. This administration must:

  • Realize that discovery is an incremental and imperfect process. For every success, there will be many more failures. But success is impossible without those failures.
  • Be bold and consistent in guaranteeing funding for technological discovery.
  • Be wise in balancing the moral dilemmas presented by technology. The good of the many must prevail against the knee-jerk reactions of the few.
  • Be prepared to completely reinvent our concept of education, because we are being quickly left behind.We have been blessed with huge advantages and the future is ours to lose, but there is nothing guaranteed here. In the 1300s, Portugal was a small and relatively insignificant player on the European landscape. But, because of one man’s vision, they ruled the world just one hundred years later. It was an era of discovery and opportunity that was unequaled in history. But it pales in comparison to what awaits us.

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