The Public Eye: Swimming From Alcatraz

By Bob Burnett
Monday May 02, 2011 - 04:03:00 PM

To celebrate turning 70, I swam from Alcatraz to San Francisco. Splashing one and half miles through icy water gave me time to reflect on six similarities between my trek, life in general, and US politics. 

Life can be a challenge. It’s vital to set ambitious personal goals. After graduating from Stanford, I undertook vocational challenges, first learning how to program computers and then how to manage technical projects. 

Americans feel uncertain about the future because the United States lacks a clearly stated challenge that we all have a part in. Seventy years ago, our goal was to win World War II. Fifty years ago, President Kennedy challenged America to win the space race with Russia. In each case, we understood both what the challenge was and the fact that every citizen had a role to play. 

Thirty years ago, President Reagan inspired Americans with his homily, “it’s morning in America,” but didn’t issue a challenge. Instead, Reagan weakened and divided us with three destructive beliefs: the US is “exceptional” and that’s our God-given status; the “free” market should determine what is best for America – “government is the problem;” and, giving preference to the rich and powerful would benefit all citizens – “a rising tide lifts all boats.” 

Ten years ago, after 9/11, President Bush didn’t challenge Americans to participate in his “war” on terror. Instead we were advised to “go shopping.” 

You have to prepare. In early January, I decided to challenge Alcatraz and, over the next three months, I logged more than one hundred miles swimming laps in preparation. 

In Outliers Malcolm Gladwell postulates, “The key to success in any field is… a matter of practicing a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours.” That correlates with my experience learning to write computer software and manage technology. It takes hard work, over an extended period of time, to accomplish an important life objective. 

Americans aren’t afraid of hard work, but they haven’t been given a significant challenge for fifty years. In his State of the Union address President Obama recognized this, saying “This is our generation’s Sputnik moment” and calling for new innovation, such as clean energy technology. Obama was right, but Americans didn’t take it on as a collective challenge. 

At some point, you have to jump into the water. After the boat carried me out to Alcatraz, I had to leap into the freezing (52 degrees) Bay. 

Sooner or later adults have to leave home, get a job, and take on other life challenges. It was a big jump to get my first job as a computer scientist and, years later, an even bigger jump to leave my comfortable IBM management position and become an executive at a tiny startup, Cisco Systems. 

Now Americans have to leap into the water. Unfortunately we’ve been enervated by the Reagan/Bush conservative ideology. Our initiative has been sapped by the vapid conservative assurance that we don’t need to change or make sacrifices; we’re special just the way we are; God loves us even though we’re indolent. 

It helps to know which way the tide is running. The organizer of my Alcatraz swim studied the San Francisco Bay tides and knew we should arrive off the island by 8:30AM to take advantage of an outbound current. 

In the world of Information Technology, success stems from reading the shifting technical tides. When I joined IBM, the computer world was organized around the mainframe. I left to go to Cisco because I believed the paradigm had shifted and information would be distributed around the Internet. 

World tides have shifted. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, twenty years ago, it was no longer necessary for America to spend billions on defense and security but we kept doing it. Most advanced nations have shifted away from coal and oil but we use them for 63 percent of our energy. It’s not only that the US is frozen in inaction but that we’re actually swimming against the tide. 

In the final analysis, it’s a team effort. As I slogged through the chilly Bay water, I was accompanied by other swimmers and a small flotilla of boats and kayaks. As an individual I have responded to challenges, but I’ve always had a strong support team. 

The wrongheaded Reagan/Bush conservative ideology has lulled Americans into complacency with the promise of “nanny capitalism,” the notion that the market will take care of us, as long as we get out of the way. In the process, it’s driven us apart; caused us to forget that democracy requires a team effort. 

It’s never too late to rise to a challenge. At age 70 I completed the swim from Alcatraz. 

It’s certainly not too late for the United States to rise to its challenge. Together Americans can do remarkable things; we can shake off our torpor and build a new future. After all, once you jump in and start swimming, the water’s not as cold as it seems. 

Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at