How My 10,000th Day in the World Changed My Life

A “Zero to Maker” journey

uly 11th, 2012 — San Francisco, California.

The day’s to-do list had been whittled down to only a few small chores: find a cup of coffee and call my mother. By intention, the rest of my schedule was wide open. I had marked this date — my 10,000th day in the world — on my calendar many years earlier, promising myself that no matter what I was doing, where I was working, or where I was living, I would take the whole day off for myself.

My aim: to reflect on my first 10,000 days. What did I learn? And I’d consider my next 10,000 days. What would I try to accomplish?

I didn’t have much planned, anyway. Inactivity had become an unfortunate fact at this moment in my life. I’d been unemployed for almost a year, and the effects were taking a toll. I’d completely exhausted my savings, could no longer afford the rent for my apartment, and had begun living out of my car. To top it all off, my girlfriend had broken up with me. By every material metric, it was a dark time. But at least I had time to reflect.

As it turned out, my 10,000th day would be the moment my life completely turned around. But to explain how, I have to jump back to a few important days that led up to it.

Day 9,424

t was a cold Sunday in December, and I was visiting San Francisco for the weekend. I’d made the trip for work — a traditional desk job that mostly involved sending emails — and decided to stay through the weekend to meet a guy named Eric Stackpole, someone a mutual friend had insisted I meet because he was “building a submarine in his garage.”

An article from a 1972 issue of True Treasure.

As soon as we met, Eric launched into an elaborate story about the Hall City Cave in northern California. There were rumors and old magazine articles about a Gold Rush-era robbery that had gone awry, he said, and a hefty ransom that had been thrown into the bottom of this water-filled cave. He told me about treasure hunters and cave divers he’d researched online — all who corroborated stories and came up empty-handed. He finished the story by telling me that he was determined to find the bottom of that cave. And he put a prototype of a remotely operated vehicle (or ROV, as he called it), which he’d built, on the table. I had never seen an underwater robot before, but Eric walked me through the basics: an enclosed camera and electronics, motors for helping it move around below the surface, and a long, thin tether to send live video back to the surface.

The initial prototype of the Open ROV.

The prototype barely worked — nowhere near ready to explore the cave. As I learned, as simple as a description of an ROV sounds, it’s an incredibly complex dance of physics and engineering. But the not-working part didn’t matter to me. I was hooked. Eric’s enthusiasm was everything that was missing from my own life: adventure, invention, the unknown. I convinced Eric to let me help. My main role would be to document and share the project online in order to find others who could contribute. That morning, OpenROV was born.

Day 9,635

t was a sunny Tuesday morning. OpenROV now had a dedicated project website, although all it really consisted of was me asking Eric questions about physics on an empty forum board. The day-to-day of my job took up the majority of my time and energy. But on this Tuesday, I was called into my boss’s office and politely told the company was going under. I was being
let go.

It was a stunning blow. Reeling, I found myself asking scary questions about the real value I was adding to the world. I mean, never mind finding a replacement job. What if my only real skill was to sit at a desk and write emails? I decided that instead of racing into the first available position, I’d take the time to learn the skills that could help OpenROV become a working vehicle. Basically, I wanted to learn how to make stuff. And so I did.

I set out on what I called a “Zero to Maker” journey, trying to pick up as many manual skills as I could in the shortest amount of time possible (before I ran out of money). I took classes in everything from woodshop to welding, gardening to letterpress. I learned about digital fabrication tools and electronics. All the while, thanks to Eric and a growing number of volunteer contributors, the OpenROV was continuing to improve and develop. The project had evolved to the point where we were finally ready to take it to explore the cave.

The makeshift command center inside the Hall City Cave.

Day 10,000

o — back to day 10,000. I grabbed that cup of coffee and went for a walk in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. I made the phone call to my mother and had a long, winding discussion about life choices. I spent the rest of the day sitting on park benches and scribbling notes into my journal.

The forced perspective of 10,000 days helped me ignore the fear created by the direness of my situation. Despite having very little to show for myself in any material sense, I felt a sense of peace about my decisions thus far — especially about OpenROV, the now all-consuming project that filled my days. We’d been to that underwater cave a month earlier. We didn’t find any gold but, man, did we have a good time trying. And the experience had allowed us to meet helpful and interesting new friends from all over the world. It felt like we were on to something.

By the end of the day, I’d summarized all my thoughts and musings. I decided that my first 10,000 days were about exploring — racing through life, trying to figure out who I was. I wanted the next 10,000 to be about building things that matter, with people I care about.

I know that sounds simple, but it was a profound shift in focus for me. It was a deep and subtle change.

10,000 — Present

he roughly 900 days since my 10,000th have been an extraordinary ride. A few weeks later, our OpenROV Kickstarter project crossed $100,000, and we found ourselves with a small (but growing) company. Within months, I had received a book deal to turn my “Zero to Maker” lessons into an actual, physical book. Within the year, I gave a TED talk on the story of OpenROV. Quite a turnaround!

The most recent Open ROV (v2.7) which was released in November 2014.

I often think about that day in the park. My conclusions may have been fairly obvious, but I’m glad I took the time to observe my life from that perspective.

There’s something unique about measuring your life in days. For some reason, it makes life feel more finite. My theory: you can feel a day in a way you can’t feel a year. You remember what you had for breakfast, what the weather was like when you walked to work, who you talked to on the phone. A day fits inside the horizon of our mind. Each one is meant to be lived fully, and each one is an opportunity to chart a new course.

David Lang is the co-founder of OpenROV and OpenExplorer. He is a TED Senior Fellow and the author of Zero to Maker.

The TED Fellows program hand-picks young innovators from around the world to raise international awareness of their work and maximize their impact.


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