Mentors

So How Will You Ever Get Off the Desert Island?

So How Will You Ever Get Off the Desert Island?
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William Clarke Jr. was always just Mr. Clarke to me. He lived down the road from my family on the North Shore of Long Island, and his grandchildren played with my sister and me.

By age 9 or 10, I had taken to dragging stories from him about his time at the U.S. Naval Academy and his work at Grumman Aerospace. As a contract negotiator, he worked with team that built lunar excursion modules for NASA to propel ships back to Earth and later the group that helped to build wings for the space shuttle. What luck, to have been a child in the presence of a man whose work animated man’s highest aspirations for exploration. I proudly hung the space shuttle blueprints he gave me on my bedroom walls.

Mr. Clarke fascinated me. He was a quiet man who valued focusing and thinking before creating. He could fix anything that went wrong in an old house. His basement was a maze of rooms, materials, projects, tools and machines. I can still smell the sawdust and musty air. He spent hours in that basement, building furniture and at Christmas time wooden castles that eager parents would buy for their novelty and form. 

Throughout my childhood, he never said no to an idea that I excitedly presented to him. From mundane objects like the wooden cutting board I made one Mother’s Day to countless science projects I presented in classrooms and at science fairs, Mr. Clarke made me believe in my own thinking and the power of unedited imagination.     

Now, in the third year of running my own business, the hundreds of hours I spent with Mr. Clarke continue to shape my daily decisions, something I had never anticipated as a child. Here are three amazing lessons from Mr. Clarke that continue to permeate all facets of my life and work:   

1. Write it out, mock it up and sketch it out.     

When I pitched an idea to him, Mr. Clarke would listen, put lined engineering paper in front of me and say, “Danny, now get it out of your head and put it on paper. Don’t worry about what it looks like. Just put something down so we can begin.”

To this day, I write a thesis sentence first and then sketch out an article or paper, just to get something down. If it’s not written down, no one can react to it. If it’s not written down, the idea remains ephemeral. Mr. Clarke taught me the importance of making ideas concrete. He taught me how and why to make ideas real through words and images.  

2. Iterations can overcome all roadblocks.  

Inevitably, projects I imagined would hit dead ends or emerge differently than I had hoped. I would throw my hands up in frustration, and Mr. Clarke would say, “So, how will you ever get off the desert island, Forrester?” Mr. Clarke would then try to build another prototype with cardboard and paper. He would even return to the original designs and reinterview me. 

Today, my company delivers breakthrough strategies for clients’ biggest ideas. I believe that strategy is a contact sport best played through iteration. I like ideas to collide in a workshop and long for randomness to enter the storyline. Individuals at my company will put stakes in the ground and let ideas evolve after they’ve been touched and retouched. By revising initial ideas and collaborating with one another, we find the best strategies to animate big ideas.  

Related: The Scientific Method for Entrepreneurs: 6 Steps to Long-Term Success

3. Find the power of focus and embrace quiet time.  

Mr. Clarke was a deep thinker. He often played classical music as we toiled at his main workbench in the basement, but when we were creating something, there was usually deep silence. In that silence, Mr. Clarke showed me the power of focus, something I would write about years later as I examined the important role reflection plays in problem solving. I now emulate Mr. Clarke’s quiet, effective example on long train rides from New Jersey to D.C., pondering, imagining and often writing. 

When I reflect on these lessons, one childhood project comes to mind before any other. I had been assigned the broad topic of geology for the science fair. Immediately, I imagined building a volcano in its pre-explosion state. I didn’t want my volcano erupting with lava. That would be too predictable and expected.

Rather, I wanted it to intermittently throw off plumes of white smoke. Mr. Clarke was surprised, repeating my plan back to me: “So, you don’t want it to erupt. You only want intermittent smoke plumes.” I nodded and he smiled and gave a chuckle.

Mr. Clarke made me draw it out and describe the plumes. He made me draw it twice. He taught me to make papier-mâché as we mocked up the curves of the mountain. Chicken-coop wire framed the inside, and a simple fish-tank pump wired to a cardboard funnel was installed in the middle. Then we hit the roadblock. Mr. Clarke could uncover no combination of white powders that would release the intermittent plumes of white smoke as I had imagined them. 

While I painted the volcano, worrying over the looming deadline, Mr. Clarke took thoughtful action. A few days before the project was due, I ran to his house and made my way to his mythic basement. He wasn’t there. Nor was he in the kitchen. Dejected, I started to walk home. 

And then I saw him. Up the hill and at the threshold of his massive garage, Mr. Clarke was beaming. At his feet, a wheel barrel sat filled with moist white powder. Our joint-production volcano was plugged in and awaiting power. 

“Danny,” he said. “We are finally off the island.” I was both excited and puzzled. Mr. Clarke explained that he had solved our intermittent smoke problem. He pointed to the wheel barrel and explained the solution he had discovered. By layering slightly wet limestone (only used on his lawn) with fine baby powder, Mr. Clarke had found a way to produce the intermittent plumes of smoke I’d wanted. I smiled, eager for what came next. Mr. Clarke hit the on switch and in a few seconds the first plume rose from the volcano, sprinkling dust. I could not believe my eyes as I watched the smoke rise in intervals, thanking Mr. Clarke for his help. 

Mr. Clarke died a few years ago at the age of 88. As a boy, I had not understood the impact he would have on me. Now as an adult, I see his example of focus and deliberate thought in everything I do. Whenever I find myself facing a roadblock or am eager to launch something new, I think of Mr. Clarke and remember the lessons he so patiently and willingly taught me. 

Editor's Note: This piece has been revised to correct William Clarke Jr.'s job title at Grumman Aerospace (he was a contract negotiator) and to clarify the nature of his work there.

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