WHYY's This I Believe Home

WHYY FM Schedule

Listen Live!

Back to WHYY FM

David St Clair

As a businessman, David St Clair has done all the things that define a sucessful entrepreneur: risk taking, pioneering a service approach to a growing industry and a keen understanding of market dynamics and opportunities. At the root of it all, says St Clair, are lessons learned at sea. From navigation and self reliance, to trust, ingenuity and a bit of luck. As he tells it, smart parents and a sense of adventure didn't hurt either.

I believe in the responsibility of independence.

As a boy growing up in the Caribbean, I learned to be independent at an early age. My sister tells stories about my running down the beach and disappearing entirely into the rough surf on the north coast of Puerto Rico at the ripe old age of four while she and my parents sat on the dunes looking out to sea. She tells of my being tumbled back up onto the beach by the waves a few minutes later, having been carried far down the shore by the current. Our parents, appearing to pay little attention, allowed me to run, laughing, back up the beach to repeat my dangerous journey in the ocean.

A couple years later, I'd often swim away from our small sailboat anchored inside the reef near small islands off the coast, singing through my snorkel, and go spearfishing for hours at a time, all alone. At eight, I spent the summer with 30 other boys and a movie crew on the island of Vieques, hunting pigs - and each other - in the dry brush as the first version of "Lord of the Flies" was being filmed. By age twelve, I was camping on remote, deserted islands in the U.S. Virgin Islands with my two best friends in what was, in retrospect, our own simple version of today's "Survivor."

One day, a year or so later, those same two friends and I stopped by my family's boat - my family had lived on a small powerboat for a couple of years while we cleared land and built our house on a mountaintop on St. John - after sailing my tiny sailboard to St. Thomas and back. One of my friends, John, used the head - the bathroom - before we went ashore.

When my father returned to our boat a few days later, he discovered that the boat's giant batteries were drained. When questioned about it, it became clear that my friend John had forgotten to turn off the light off in the head.

I knew how to deal with the consequences of my own actions and I shared my father's anger, but directed it at John. Surprisingly, my father was having none of it! "Your responsibility doesn't end there, son - you're responsible for those around you as well. None of us can absolve ourselves that easily!"

I protested vigorously, of course - it wasn't my fault, surely! But after singlehandedly hauling the incredibly heavy batteries out of the hold, hoisting them into the dinghy and rowing them ashore, I started to understand that others' mistakes can have consequences for me as well. By the time the gas station had recharged the batteries and I'd ferried them back to the boat and reinstalled them below decks the next day, I truly believed.

My parents raised me to believe - well, showed me, actually - that there's no conflict between the idea that I am my own man, responsible for my choices, and the notion that we are responsible both to each other and for each other. As a society, we frequently celebrate individuality, but often neglect community. In the company I started 20 years ago, we live the value that says that while each of us is accountable for our own set of tasks, none of us are truly done until we've all reached our goals. Our nation's political debate, however, always seems to be about the false choice between personal responsibility and mutual accountability. I believe each of us can - and must - be committed to both.