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How will you change your life — or the world?

I set a grand vision for myself and it helped me focus on building the life I wanted


Mark W. Erwin
November 24, 2018 4:00PM (UTC)
Excerpted with permission from "The Powers: 12 Principles to Transform Your Life from Ordinary to Extraordinary" by Mark W. Erwin. Copyright 2018 by Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.

Bill Clinton once said to me, “To succeed, spend your best time thinking about tomorrows, not yesterdays.”

Knowing yourself prepares you to work toward success, but actually achieving success requires direction—a goal to work toward and plan for getting there. That’s where the Power of Vision comes into play. Many consider daydreaming a waste of time, but I disagree.

It is estimated that we spend one-third of our waking hours daydreaming. During that time, the mind is very active. Daydreaming is fine as long as you then follow up with action.

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Your Thinking Place

Go to your most solitary place to allow your mind to wander. For some, it might be a long walk or a private drive. Others prefer a favorite chair or room. I prefer sitting at the base of a tree in the woods without any distractions other than nature at its finest. I like to just sit and watch nature unfold and encircle me. Think of a date in the far future. It may be ten or twenty years, or more. I prefer to think in decades, because it allows me time to accomplish big things. Now, visualize who and what you are by then and why. What do you hope your friends and family will remember you for? This is your Grand Vision, a call to action that defines in clear terms what your vision for success means to you.

Now, write your Grand Vision down and carry it with you. A written vision statement is far more powerful than one that is not written.

My first Grand Vision came to me while I was on guard duty late one evening while in the Air Force and it was that I must rebuild my family’s lost fortune. I decided my Grand Vision would be to “Rebuild my family’s wealth and reputation.”

My next Grand Vision was in 1989, when I was on safari in Botswana and crept to a watering hole before sunup one crisp morning, armed only with a camera and a bottle of water. I hid behind some brush and watched first the antelope and warthogs approach the water hole with great trepidation. There was barely enough light to see more than ten feet but I was thrilled to be a part of their world. Later, the larger animals came in, and the smaller ones left. Finally, the lions came, and the rest scattered, but not too far. At the time, I had a successful business. I had achieved both my twenty-year and thirty-year goals and was financially independent, so I decided rather than chase more wealth for wealth’s sake, I needed a new Grand Vision. I decided my next Grand Vision would be to “Develop and maintain balance in my life.” My definition of balance was to spend one-third of my time working, one-third on faith and family, and one-third playing. I started rearranging my life to achieve this balance. It took six months of color-coding my appointment calendar by the three categories to finally adjust my priorities, and it was worth it.

In 1999, I developed the third Grand Vision as my wife, Joan, and I were flying to Africa so I could take up my new post as US ambassador to a regional embassy off the southeast coast of Africa. Sitting there in the darkness and solitude, as my wife slept next to me, it all came together in my mind. I turned to wake Joan and told her I knew our mission for this chapter of our lives: “Make a difference, do good, and have fun.”

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I told her, “if we measure everything we attempt to accomplish by these standards, we will feel a real sense of accomplishment.” She said, “Great,” and rolled over to go back to sleep. Joan and I were able to fulfill this Grand Vision in the coming years in ways we couldn’t have imagined at the time.

As we left our post in Mauritius in 2001, Joan and I reflected on that Grand Vision I relayed to her on our first plane ride there in 1999, and we felt a strong sense of satisfaction that we had fully embraced and succeeded in following that creed. Since we left our diplomatic post, I have had numerous opportunities to continue living out my Grand Vision to make a difference, do good and have fun” through both personal and business dealings and diplomatic missions around the world.

Grand Vision Profiles

Many people find it difficult to fully form their grand vision or at least put it into words. I have found its most helpful when you observe it close-up for yourself by reading a biography or documentary on a person where their life is put into focus.

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Just pick someone, anyone, who inspires you to chase that Grand Vision, get to know them (in person, by word-of-mouth, or even on Wikipedia), and figure out what you can learn from them that will help you chase your goals and dreams.

Here I’ve profiled a few people I admire, primarily as forerunners to pursuing one’s Grand Vision. I consider many of them friends and mentors, despite having never met some of them. Their example of strong and single-minded pursuit of their goals provides worthy examples of the traits I believe are worth cultivating in your life. In short, the following are people who successfully pursued their Grand Vision.

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Jack Ma, Founder of Alibaba, 2014 richest man in China (Forbes, September 9, 2014)

As a youth, he wanted to learn English, so he rode his bike each morning to a nearby hotel to talk with foreigners and would guide them around the city free so he could practice his English. He wanted to go on to Hangzhou Normal University but failed the entrance exam—twice. Refusing to give up, on the third attempt, he passed and went on to be elected student chairman and graduated in 1988 with a bachelor’s degree in English.

He later became a lecturer in English and international trade at the Hangzhou Dianzi University. Ma first started building websites for Chinese companies with the help of friends in the United States. He said, “The day we got connected to the World Wide Web, I invited friends over to my house, and on a very slow dial-up connection, we waited three and a half hours and got half a page . . . We drank, watched TV, and played cards, waiting. But I was so proud. I had proved the Internet existed.”

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In 1995, Ma founded China Yellowpages, widely believed to be China’s first Internet-based company. In 1998, he headed an information technology company established by the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation. In 1999, he decided to quit his job and founded Alibaba, a China-based business-to-business marketplace, in his apartment with a group of seventeen friends. After ten long years of hard work, by 2009, Ma was honored by Time magazine with inclusion into the Time list of the world’s “100 Most Influential People.” Adi Ignatius, editor-in-chief of the Harvard Business Review, said, “Meeting Jack Ma, you might be forgiven for thinking he’s still an English teacher. Ma is an incredible example of what can happen when you commit to the single-minded pursuit of a Grand Vision and stick to your guns when the going gets tough.

It just goes to show, with a Grand Vision and the will to succeed, the world is your oyster.

Ma said, “great fortunes of the world are made by people who saw opportunities where others only saw problems. In 2010, Ma was selected by Forbes Asia as one of Asia’s Heroes of Philanthropy for his contribution to disaster relief and poverty.

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William Henry “Bill” Gates Cofounder of Microsoft Corporation and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

“I really had a lot of dreams when I was a kid, and I think a great deal of that grew out of the fact that I had a chance to read a lot.”

Bill grew up in a family that encouraged competition. There was always a reward for winning and a penalty for losing. He was a voracious reader as a child. Bill was feisty and at times combative. He did well in school, but he was bored. His parents worried he might become a loner. Then at age thirteen, he began to show an interest in computer programming. At one point, he and his best friend, Paul Allen, had their school computer privileges revoked for hacking the computer to obtain free time on it. They were ultimately allowed back in the computer lab after they offered to debug the program they had hacked. Gates later developed a payroll program for the computer company they had hacked and a scheduling program for the school. Gates and Allen through hard work and perseverance were unbelievably successful. He states, “I never took a day off in my twenties . . . Not one.” Gates has said, “When Paul Allen and I started Microsoft . . .we had big dreams about software . . . about the impact it could have. We talked about a computer on every desk and in every home.”

Try to imagine how absolutely absurd this idea would have been when, in 1975, Xerox had just closed their computer division. He also said, “The Internet is becoming the town square for the global village of tomorrow.” What a Grand Vision!

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Despite the challenges, Gates and his fellow founders at Microsoft took a dying industry and revamped it into the most widely used and ubiquitous technologies of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

Now, Gates has a new Grand Vision: “By the year 2035, there will be almost no poor countries left in the world.” He goes on to say, “It is a myth that poor countries are doomed to stay poor.”

* * *

Elon Musk, Founder of PayPal, SpaceX, and Tesla Motors

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“Well, I work a lot . . . I mean a lot.”

Elon Musk is a South African–born Canadian American engineer, inventor, and billionaire. He grew up in South Africa and Elon was a big reader. He would go through two books a day. In his teens, Elon says, he read a mountain of philosophical and religious books.

At age fifteen, Musk decided to move to the United States. His mother was born in Canada, which was close enough. He got a Canadian passport and arrived in Montreal with very little money and no home. He spent the next year working at menial jobs to support himself while studying at Queens University in Ontario. In 1992, he was able to move to the United States after receiving a scholarship from the University of Pennsylvania.

Musk made his first fortune as a cofounder of PayPal, which revolutionized payment systems on the Internet.

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Musk’s Grand Vision could best be summed up by his statement to the Los Angeles Times, “I like to be involved in things that change the world.”

So far, he’s managed to take that Grand Vision to places not even he could have imagined.

When asked on a TED talk interview how he has accomplished so much innovation in so many fields, he responded, I do think there’s a good framework for thinking. It is physics . . . the sort of first principles reasoning . . . Boil things down to their fundamental truths and reason up from there, as opposed to reasoning by analogy.

When you want to do something new, you have to apply the physics approach. Physics is really figuring out how to discover new things that are counterintuitive . . . So I think that’s an important thing to do.

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Also, really pay attention to negative feedback, and solicit it, particularly from friends. This may sound like simple advice, but hardly anyone does that, and it’s incredibly helpful. Musk recently stated his next Grand Vision: “Build a ‘hyperloop’ to carry people from San Francisco to Los Angeles in thirty-five minutes.” I would not put it past him to accomplish this vision too.

* * *

David H. Murdock, American rags-to-riches billionaire, said, “To do the impossible, you must see the invisible.”

Murdock, who lives in Kannapolis, NC., was dyslexic from birth, dropped out of high school in the ninth grade and was drafted by the US Army to fight in World War II.

Returning from the war, he was homeless and broke and sleeping on a park bench. His first Grand Vision was to never be destitute again!

Today, when Murdock speaks about his difficult childhood and lack of formal education, he casts it as an unintended gift. He says that because he felt the need to compensate, he read constantly.

Like so many others of exceptional success, he educated himself, setting up his own study curriculum. He was never able to rest on his credentials.

Presently, Murdock (now ninety-four) has been fulfilling his latest Grand Vision to build a state-of-the-art biotechnology research center in North Carolina. He has personally spent more than $500 million in recent years to construct the North Carolina Research Campus, a scientific center dedicated to his conviction that consuming the right variety of plants holds the promise of optimal health and maximal life span.


Mark W. Erwin

Mark W. Erwin is an author, businessman, and retired United States Ambassador. He is also a philanthropist, an ordained lay minister, a fair golfer, and the recipient of many honors, including an Honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters, several Honorary Knighthoods, and The Order of the Long Leaf Pine. He has served innumerable civic, charitable, cultural, and educational organizations. He resides in Charlotte, North Carolina, with his family.

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