Life Advice from Craig Venter

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What adventure most changed your life?

Getting drafted. I was just supposed to be on the Navy swimming team, training for the Pan Am Games and the Olympics. But in the middle of boot camp in 1965, Lyndon Johnson escalated the war in Vietnam and canceled all military sports teams. I ended up in Da Nang as a medical corpsman. Seeing large numbers of people die, sometimes right in front of you, sometimes while you’re massaging their heart with your hands — those are pretty tough lessons to learn in your late teens.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

When I was a graduate student at UC San Diego, my late mentor, Nate Kaplan, told me that for smart people, good ideas are a dime a dozen, and the difference between just having ideas and being successful is being able to execute them.

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Who is the toughest guy you know?

Work in creating synthetic life attracts some of the kooks of the world, and so, on occasion, I have a security detail composed of Navy SEALs. They’re definitely the toughest in terms of knowing what to do.

What hidden skill have you mastered?

I’m a highly competent sailor, although I did have an accident when I was racing on Lake Erie in an 18-foot Hobie Cat. I was way out in front, so I decided to hotdog it toward the finish line. I had the boat almost vertical up on one hull, and I leaned back on the tiller and it snapped. Even though falling eight feet took less than a second, I remember thinking all the way down that I’m pissed off because now I’m going to lose, but at least I’ll fall in the water. Well, I didn’t. I hit the lower hull and broke my shoulder, knocked myself out.

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What should every man know about money?

An early teacher of mine, Bruce Cameron, said that the notion that creativity stems from poverty and pain is false and that the people who are most creative in life are those who have their pleasure tanks full. I spend money almost as fast as I get it — sometimes faster.

What should every man know about women?

In my experience, women like men who behave as real men — having power but not using it in the relationship.

What’s the best cure for a hangover?

Actually, the best cure for a hangover, scientifically, is more alcohol.

What’s the worst physical pain you’ve experienced?

I was on Cocos Island, off Costa Rica — one of the largest uninhabited islands on the planet — and decided to take my then future wife on a wild hike over the top of this mountain. We started feeling a pain. We didn’t know it, but it was from these tiny fire-ant bites. It just kept accumulating and accumulating as we hiked through the thick brush. It was like my entire skin was on fire. We found this pool at the base of a waterfall, and we stripped down and dove in, which felt good for about 30 seconds. It took about six hours for the pain to dissipate.

Do you have a scar that tells a story?

I have a scar on my back from giving a pound of flesh to melanoma a few years ago. A consequence of too much wandering naked on beaches in the sunshine.

What’s the best survival skill you know?

Having good intuition and natural reaction. Most of the complex decisions that make a difference are the ones you make in a fraction of a second. That’s saved my life more than once.

How should a man handle getting old?

By fighting it at every stage — mentally, physically. If you start to think of yourself as old, you will be.

Have you ever cheated death?

I was swimming offshore while serving in Vietnam and something hit my leg. I reached down and grabbed it — it was a sea snake. By sheer luck I grabbed it by the head instead of the tail. I couldn’t let go of it because once they’re disturbed they get really pissed. When I got to the beach and killed it, I decided that this was a defining moment for me, so I skinned it, dried the skin, and pinned it to a board. I now have it framed on the wall at my house. 

This story first ran in the June 2011 issue of Men's Journal.

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