I first met Ugo Conti a number of years ago when we discussed an inflatable boat he had designed to sail from the San Francisco Bay to Hawaii. This adventure was born from Conti’s passion for the sea and was somewhat of a follow up to the round-the-world sailing adventures he took with his young family decades before. I think it takes someone with a lot of self-assuredness to quit their job, buy a sail boat, load up their family, and sail off into the big blue with relatively limited sailing experience.
The funny thing is, Mr. Conti actually claims to be a “coward.” He even named that first boat “Phobos” after the god of fear. He quickly adds, though, that the fear he felt was actually one of the things that kept him safe. He approached sailing around the world from the perspective of an engineer… and then he over-engineered the situation to be doubly or triply safe. As Mr. Conti told me, “If you go at sea, and with other things in life too, either you are an expert, or you’re scared. If you are both, it’s even better. If you’re not one of those two, any sailing endeavor becomes very dangerous. If you’re scared, or you’re so worried about everything, then you’re very careful. And so you can go into difficult situations because you are careful. If you’re not scared and you’re not an expert, if you go to sea you’ll get clobbered, and maybe even die.” He continued, “but by going through that, you face, but not conquer, fear. They say it’s a courageous person that goes on despite the fear, not somebody that is not fearful. Because that person is an idiot.”
I have been lucky to meet many unconventional thinkers who have changed the world by “thinking outside the box.” That term has become a cliché. But when I spoke with Mr. Conti, I saw a person who has never seen “the box.” It seems as though each of his projects starts with a clean slate and he borrows little from collective engineering standards. He designs boats but does not claim to be a marine engineer. One thing he told me that I found very interesting was how someday “someone is going to invent a powerful engine, something that runs on water, air or some unlimited resource and makes no pollution. This will kill the combustion engine and every car, boat, train, airplane and power-plant will be generating power in a completely clean way. The person who invents that machine will not be someone from the car industry or anyone who studied combustion engines or conventional engineering.” True groundbreaking progress comes from outsiders who don’t follow the pack.