Richard Branson, the business icon and entrepreneur extraordinaire is back on the bookshelves with another autobiography, “Finding My Virginity,” which, um, bookends a shelf of previous autobiographies like, “Like a Virgin,” The Virgin Way,” and “Losing my Virginity.” Branson’s appropriation of virginity was mildly shocking once but in these times, it serves well to describe a man who admittedly knew very little about many of the endeavors he embarked upon but who also proved to be a remarkably quick study on the way to amassing a fortune estimated at $6 billion at one point.
“You can only lose your virginity once.” he writes in the prologue. “But in every aspect of my life—building businesses, raising my family, embarking upon adventures—I try to do things for the first time every day.” In other words, he is a serial virginity loser, which helps explain his success.
Branson’s daring, impulsivity and ability to take a hit and keep on functioning have made him a legend, a fortune, and at least once saved his life but as is often true of the great ones it’s the failures that tell much more. For instance, there was a New Yorker article a few years back that described his death defying attempts (yes there was more than one) to circumnavigate the earth in a helium balloon. The first attempts ended in oceans and with introductions to some very nice navy and coast guard types but the attempt that sticks is the one that made it, naturally.
But there was a more harrowing experience in which Branson and his wife were sailing in the Caribbean with another couple when the boat’s mast broke. They were by Branson’s estimate miles from land and the foursome had to decide whether to stay with the wreck or swim. Branson and his wife didn’t think twice and made a swim for it. The other couple was never heard from again. It could have easily gone the other way, but it didn’t.
Closer to the present, I started following Branson’s career in earnest about ten years ago when he offered a prize of $25 million of his own money for a method that in prototype could absorb one billion tons of CO2 from the atmosphere per year for ten successive years and keep it out. Branson’s thinking was that such a demonstration would likely scale up to a level sufficient to help ease the planet’s problem with carbon pollution. As an owner of airlines he felt some responsibility for finding a solution.
Naturally, there was news coverage. In my book, “The Age of Sustainability” I quote headlines in the New York Times including, “A Cool $25 Million for a Climate Backup Plan,” in the Science Times section on February 13, 2007, above a story by John Tierney. Referring to global warming at that announcement, Branson said, “Man created the problem, therefore man should solve the problem.”
No matter that what Branson wanted was a way to un-smoke a cigarette, he compared his Virgin Earth Challenge to the quest to discover a method for determining longitude at sea which was inspired by the 1714 Longitude Act of the British Parliament.
But four years later another Times story, “Cash Prize for Environmental Help Goes Unawarded,” told a very different tale. Branson and his team had reviewed more than 2,600 challenge submissions and found none of them worthy. What happened in the intervening four years is a lesson in large-scale research, development, international cooperation, invention, and expectation setting. In short, Branson’s discovery that at least some of the solutions required tampering with earth’s natural systems, and violated various international treaties poured cold water on the effort. Then too, many of the solutions simply didn’t work for various reasons. Solving the problem would require international cooperation at the level of nation states, an area where Branson’s expertise was, and still is, virginal.
Today the Virgin Earth Challenge is in a state of suspended animation, no prize has been awarded but people are definitely working on projects and no one is very concerned. After all, solving the longitude problem took up most of the 18th century and the productive lives of those who chased the dream which culminated when a self-taught clock maker, John Harrison, produced the first true marine chronometer which enabled mariners to compare the time at a home port (later the prime meridian at Greenwich, UK) with the local time derived from celestial observations. After that, a simple calculation could tell you where you were.
In all of this Branson has played the role of catalyst providing capital but also, and more importantly, vision and encouragement derived from a belief that problems have solutions. In essence this divides the world into two camps engineers who can figure out solutions to problems, and those who dream quixotically of doing the impossible, like repealing the law of gravity. Branson is many things but he is not, contrary to the image, quixotic.