The Biologist Who Sequenced The Human Genome On The Importance Of Goals

Photo by Mackenzie Stroh

Photo by Mackenzie Stroh

Alison Beard: You’re known for setting audacious goals and then achieving them more quickly than most would. Why is that approach so effective for you?

John Craig Venter: The goals are only considered to be audacious by other people. I consider them to be achievable.

AB: You’ve endured other career setbacks and a lot of controversy and criticism. How did you come through them?

JC: You have to believe in what you’re doing and your own processes. My military service in Vietnam taught me a lot. I was one of the lucky people to serve there and return. As a medic I dealt with thousands of young men who didn’t make it back. So I learned at an early age that the worst thing you can lose is your life and that taking risks and suffering setbacks is part of moving forward. One of the things I jokingly say is that I know so much because I’ve made so many mistakes. Having a long-term vision helps as well. In my latest book, Life at the Speed of Light, I discuss all the setbacks in our route to creating the first synthetic cell. It’s the kind of research the government wouldn’t have funded because it took a long time to work through all the problems, and I doubt we could have convinced a grant committee that they were solvable. But I was certain they were, and the only proof was the final success.

AB: You seem to gravitate to physically challenging, sometimes dangerous hobbies. How do those pursuits help you in your work?

JC: People study what they’re fascinated by, and I started my career with research on adrenaline. I could be described as an adrenaline junkie. I think it’s been tempered as I’ve gotten older, but, again, what you consider risky depends on your skill set. Sailing around the world, or riding motorcycles, or racing cars can be very risky ventures. But if you know what you’re doing, they’re not. I do think diversions that require intense concentration—risky or not—force you to clear your mind and step away from the daily issues, from the two steps forward and one step back, or the one step forward and two back. That’s been a key part of the creative process for me.

Interview via Harvard Business Review