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Everything you enjoy today was created by a trailblazer

Jan 04, 2015 Strategy, Success, Sunday Nation

Most of us tread on well-worn paths. We live in places where we are connected to electricity and running water. We acquire received wisdom from orthodox institutions. We take up familiar occupations, and follow traditional career paths. We start businesses in conventional industries with established competitors and known rules.

We take the road most taken. We feel the comfort of the familiar, we settle into grooves created by others, we continue what is already there, we extrapolate from what exists. We want as our guides and mentors those who have already succeeded, who know how best to do what is already being done.

It’s easy. It’s soothing. It’s comfortable.

But as you sit ensconced in your predictable life, I’d like you to think about a different category of person. There are very few such people on the planet, but they are the ones who create history. The rest just participate.

These people are the trailblazers. Think about that word, and what it means. It refers to someone who walks into a wilderness where there are no roads or paths. None. Our friend, however, is not deterred. She must get through this wilderness and see what is on the other side. Absolutely must get through. And yet there is dense undergrowth, and unknown beasts lurking. Most of us would turn back.

Not the trailblazer, though. She will start a fire, hack the bushes, scream to scare away dangers. After much discomfort, the beginnings of a trail will be visible. After some time, other travellers will appear, and see the trail. They will be grateful. They will use it, and improve it. Many, many years later, a fully tarmacked road will be built over the original trail. Now, many travellers will come, and bring with them trade, exchange and commerce. Development will happen.

Future generations will not be able to imagine that where this highway now stands, there was once nothing. Just danger and uncertainty. But were it not for that original, rugged, diehard trailblazer, nothing else would have happened. She may not even have seen the highway and towns that followed. She may have succumbed, as most trailblazers do, to the rigours of the struggle. Yet without her, nothing else would have ensued.

Iconic entrepreneur Peter Thiel calls this going from “zero to one” in his book of the same name. Creating something where once there was nothing. Most people go from “one to n,” not zero to one. They propagate something that already exists. They introduce new versions of something, not the thing itself. They follow “best practice.” They mimic, enhance, improve. But they do not create.

Trailblazers are few and far between, but they are the ones who change the world. Banking is undergoing major upheavals, but not because of bankers; the disruption is brought by those who pioneered the storing and movement of money on mobile phones. Much of the world’s knowledge is now available by clicking a button, but not because of traditional teachers, but because of those crazy people who encountered a wilderness and blazed a trail called the internet through it.

As 2015 rolls out, please understand the role of trailblazers in all our lives. Those people who are not satisfied with the status quo; who don’t take notes and don’t follow instructions; who dare to take the first step into the unknown; who map out the territory so that others can follow. These are heroic people.

Once upon a time we called them explorers and pioneers, and they literally blazed new trails in the mysterious undergrowth. Today, we must remember to appreciate trailblazers who fight for our political and human rights; who launch fresh businesses that improve lives; who use technology to bring about remarkable benefits for all.

For pretty much everything you’re enjoying today, there was once a lonely, seemingly crazy person staring at a wilderness, seeing the unseen. That person plunged into the undergrowth, and the rest is history.

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