January 08, 2014, 8:56 PM — When I learned to SCUBA dive, (a long time ago) my instructor believed firmly in the axiom, “Plan your dive. Dive your plan.” It is a generally accepted truth that when you go into a wild environment, you don’t know what to expect and you certainly can’t control it. But the plan is important.
I have found his advice works just as well for life as it does for diving. Today – in a meeting about his new startup, location-based social media tool SocialRadar at the Consumer Electronics Show -- I met Michael Chasen, who also invented the Blackboard education system. I asked him if he could identify a “Spark!” moment in the path that led him to this moment, having sold one game-changing high-tech company and on the point of launching another. His answer illustrated the “plan your dive” philosophy beautifully.
“When I was in high school,” he explained. “I was into computers and was a member of my high school leadership program.” And one day, and not too seriously at that, he came up with a plan. “I announced I was going to be president of a computer company. And that meant I had to get a computer science degree, a business degree, and go to law school. And then – and this is sort of funny -- I did end up doing almost exactly that. I did become president of a computer company! But I don’t want to make it sound like I was a driven high-achiever who knew where I was going. I think it was just a coincidence. I was a very average student.”
It’s the same with the dive plan. You make the plan. And you follow it, sometimes rather vaguely. Because you know when you made the plan that you didn’t know enough to have any idea if it was even possible. So you never really expect that everything you plan will turn out as you plotted it. And, right after you make the plan, you drop into an ocean with unpredictable currents, huge predators, unforeseen events, a million ways to fail or die, and who knows what else. But having the plan points you in the right direction and gives you a compass to follow when you are presented with a confusing array of choices.
“I didn’t even know what I meant when I said that,” says Chasen. “When my partner and I launched Blackboard, we didn’t do it to get rich or to become president. I got into it through economics. I believed that making education cheap enough to be available to everyone would fix economies. I did it because I wanted to change the world.” That it also fulfilled his early plan, he says, is just a funny accident.
But he did also manage to change the world. His education solution is used in 2,700 higher education institutions in North America and 4,800 U.S. K-12 schools, districts, and virtual schools. I think he’s offering excellent evidence to support my diving instructor’s motto. And how hard is it anyway to come up with a plan and then make a vague attempt to follow it?