“Jack of all trades, master of none” is a phrase people derogatorily use to describe someone who is good at many things but great at nothing. (Never mind that the full saying actually is “Jack of all trades, master of none, though ofttimes better than master of one.”) Or, if not used in a disparaging way, elders like to repeat the cliché to pose a choice to youngsters: which would you rather be?
And that is what I love most about Steve Fossett: he proved the choice doesn’t have to be either/or. One can pursue a whole range of activities and excel at all of them.
You may already have heard about Steve Fossett’s round-the-world-in-a-balloon attempts, which he finally succeeded at in June 2002. But, did you know the following about him?
- He studied at Stanford (class of 1966), where he was already known as an adventurer. Sometime during that time, he swam through the chilly waters of the SF Bay over to Alcatraz (which had been closed for only two years at that time) to raise a banner that said “Beat Cal.” This was long before there were the Escape From Alcatraz Swim or the Alcatraz triathlons that are en vogue today.
- In the ensuing decades, he became a multi-millionaire by founding companies that rented securities exchange memberships. He made his first million by age 33. But he missed doing the “interesting things” he had done while at Stanford, and starting around 1990 (when he moved to Colorado), he decided to devote some time and part of his fortune for “getting back into things.”
- Some of these “interesting things” included the Hawaii Ironman Triathlon, swimming the English Channel, participating in the Iditarod, running the Leadville Trail 100, setting some Colorado distance records in cross-country skiing, driving in the 24 Hours of LeMans, and climbing six of the seven continental summits. But he had grander ambitions. MUCH grander!
- In the last decade, he set world records in ballooning, sailing, gliding, flying, and cross-country skiing. Most of these are for going farther or faster than anybody else.
- In fact, he achieved 115 world records or world firsts. This in itself is a world record.
His list of specific achievements is so long that I won’t even try to summarize all of them on this page. Besides, a complete list of his records and awards is here.
Before you dismiss him as being a megalomaniac, his pursuits have pushed out the limits of technology and contributed to the sciences. Most of all, he inspired scores of people he never met—myself included—with his diversified exploits.
Unfortunately, on September 3, 2007, Steve Fossett disappeared á la Amelia Earhart. He was last seen taking off in a single-engine Bellanca from the Nevada airstrip owned by hotel magnate Barron Hilton. Two weeks later, the Civil Air Patrol called off its search-and-rescue efforts when advanced technology—including the use of Google’s high-resolution satellite imagery—failed to turn up anything. We can only now assume that Steve Fossett is dead.
But I actually don’t feel too sad about this since he had already lived to the fullest extent imaginable, achieving what most people would not even attempt if they had 100 lives. He redefined what it meant to be a modern-day Renaissance Man, and I hope he passed away content knowing that.