Mark S. Blackburn, MBA

“Sailing through life”

A speech delivered at Hewlett-Packard, Inc.

In March 1998


One of the Patriarchs of Ancient Israel, Joseph, was sold into slavery by his Brothers.  Although he was a model servant in Egypt wisely discharging his duties, more bad luck in the form of false accusations eventually landed him in Pharaoh's prison.  After 2 full years in prison he received a lucky break, and was released from prison.    Eventually,  Joseph became second in command over the entire Egyptian Empire. 

Today, using the metaphor of a ship sailing at sea, I want to share some of the pitfalls of sailing through challenging seas  in order to encourage you on your voyage through life.   My ultimate purpose fellow  Toastmasters and guests is to challenge us to chart a course for the greatest success we are capable of. 

Joseph’s streak of misfortune was extremely discouraging.  But, the law of averages declares that bad luck can’t last forever.    In Joseph’s service as a slave and as a prisoner he took responsibility for himself.  In the face of what appeared to be hopeless circumstances, he took command of his situation. 

A ship is an inanimate object.  Without a skipper a ship will not sail itself.  

1.  Therefore, when sailing through life,  you must take full command of your vessel .

Like Joseph, I know what involuntary servitude is.  For 14 years I was under a court order of servitude.  During the first 7 years I was only able to retain 15% of my earnings.  This made it impossible for me to be the kind of Father I wanted to be, to pursue many interests I have, or to date or consider marriage.  With this unfair decree in place, I became very discouraged.  At times I even questioned the value of working.  Such theft would probably never have occurred in any other country.  Yes, I even considered at one point trying to escape from the United States.  Convincing a reasonable judge of this, I finally received a partial reduction in my servitude.    Whereas I had been with no wind, making no progress,  A fresh puff of encouragement caught my tattered sails.  The lines creaked, the booms swayed, and once again I heard that sound of water passing under the hull as my ship started to cut through the sea once again. I literally wept for joy.

All of us have suffered disappointments in life.  All of us over the age of 12 have made the personal discovery that life is not fair.  Some men like Bill Gates are more successful.  Some women are more beautiful.   Some of us seem to suffer years of discouragement or misfortune. 

At such times it is often impossible to follow prudent impulses to make good decisions in life which will gradually over time turn our fortunes for the better.  Our example--the Hebrew slave Joseph, demonstrates two important points.  First,   the law of averages will simply not allow someone to endure a lifetime of consistently bad luck.  Second, if in times of discouragement, we continue to make prudent decisions about life....these will probably help us turn our luck around. 

2.  Therefore,  when sailing through life, Remember that Storms and adverse seas will not last forever.

Our lives and the success we have in them are largely the result of our decisions--and our lack of decisions.  Oh, sure, one man may have better potential for success than another.   Some have the potential to live only 60 years, whereas others could live as long as 90.  My question for you today is given your potential, given that you’ll suffer some storms and bad luck, are you pressing on in life making careful decisions which will maximize your potential for success?  Or are you sailing your ship towards a dangerous reef?  Are you going to blame your failures on bad air?  Or, can you like a wise skipper accept and be prepared for some adverse conditions?  When decisions need to be made, make them!

3.  Therefore, when sailing through life, Change course, and Trim your sails when necessary. 

We are like sailing ships adrift on an ocean of changing conditions, powered by winds which are not reliable.  As conditions in life change we must prudently alter course, we must trim our sails.  What do I mean by this?    I grew up in a home where one parent felt strongly I should go to college.  My other parent felt just as strongly that college was a waste.  Graduating in 1971, the numbers actually favored not going to college.  Blue collar tradesmen generally out earned degreed professionals in the 50s and 60s.    Well the sea and weather conditions changed rapidly.  In one 13 year period beginning in 1973, the standard of living for non-college educated men in the USA dropped an unbelievable 70%.  It was definitely time to hoist a new set of sails and alter course to my nearest university.

4.  Therefore, when sailing through life, Remember to frequently check your ocean & weather conditions. 

I grew up in a sailing town.  A rich man named Jim Kilroy had leased a brand new 50-foot catamaran.   Catamarans with two hulls were a new innovation, and sailed frightfully fast.  On one particularly windy day he engaged another boat in a race.  In his effort to impress others, he pushed his boat too hard and capsized it.  For the next few days this expensive new Catamaran floated upside-down in the harbor.  To Kilroy’s  utter humiliation some observant hecklers rowed over to the capsized boat and  painted on the side of the hull  three words:   “Kilroy was here!” 

As we make our way through life we need to care for ourselves and not push ourselves beyond our capacities.  True health care, as distinguished from disease care is actually self-care:  eating properly and getting adequate exercise and rest, and has nothing to do with western medicine.  Insurance giant Blue Cross states, "...for the most part, unnoticed bad living habits--not germs, are the big killers in industrialized society.  Most Americans choose the way they die.”  How you live each hour and each day more than anything else will determine what will kill you and when.  Over the past 50 years, our unhealthy living habits have grown into a gigantic new disease that kills seven of every ten Americans..."   We cannot be completely successful in any aspect of life if we do not maintain our health.   Health never comes from drug-based cures which treat symptoms, but comes from actively managing our lifestyle and life.   Like our bodies, A sailing vessel must be   maintained in Bristol fashion or it cannot cross oceans or win races. 

5.  Therefore, when sailing through life, Keep your vessel ship-shape - and don’t push her too hard.


For a successful voyage through life remember:


1.  You must take full command of your vessel .

2.  Storms and adverse seas will not last forever.

3.  Change course, and trim your sails when necessary.

4.  Frequently check your ocean & weather conditions.

5.  Keep your vessel ship-shape - and don’t push her too hard.


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Mark Blackburn

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Mark S. Blackburn, MBA

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Sacramento, CA 95814

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Last Updated: February 14, 2010